Life as an independent contractor during a pandemic

Since then, gas prices have plummeted, restaurant delivery has skyrocketed…

By Wayne Boyd

After working for 17 years at a state prison in Amarillo, Texas, even as a pandemic was beginning to spread across the nation, I decided to retire. After all, I was 67 years old and eligible for a) social security, b) a lifetime pension from TDCJ, and c) health insurance for life for my wife and myself. Not too shabby.

Furthermore, for the last 2 years I had been picking up Uber and Lyft passengers in my spare time, and more recently started restaurant deliveries with companies like GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats. Why not continue that after retirement?

My wife and I discussed my options and decided that retirement would be okay if I could earn about $50 a day driving doing deliveries. Then we upped the figure to $70 because we wanted to account for wear and tear on the vehicle and gas prices. In other words, I’d be making a profit of $50 a day after gas, or $1,500 a month added to my social security and pension income. It would be more than comfortable.

Since then, gas prices have plummeted, restaurant delivery has skyrocketed, and working only a few hours a day I’m averaging $170 a day. I’m pulling in about $160/day profit, or $4,800/month, $3,300 more than projected to live comfortably.

I stopped picking up passengers with Uber and Lyft and just do the delivery now. I’m safer and there’s been no drop in income. Lyft sent me an email informing me how vital it was to have drivers and how desperately needed drivers were to move people around. I ignored the message.

As a side note, I’ve been a vegetarian since before I was old enough to vote. I wish I could get the world to stop eating meat, but that’s obviously not going to happen. So I decided okay, I can deliver food to these people and make a bunch of money. I won’t eat what they eat, but I was already delivering inmates food trays, why not drop off bags of food at people’s homes?

So for me, life is good now. In fact, it’s much better financially than before, even as many millions of Americans are losing their jobs in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

I just hope the State of Texas continues to afford my monthly pension check and the federal government continues to send me social security money.

Retirement: Day 1

Couldn’t sleep much, though I’m very tired and I will have much to do today. This is the first time in 17 years that I haven\t had to worry about the unusual schedule… an 8 day work cycle, 4 twelve hour days followed by 4 days off. Lately it’s been more like 6 on and only 2 off.

So I got up, shaved and showered, turned on Uber and Lyft and caught my first passenger within a few minutes – a lady going to prep the food at a local Sonic.

When I say I’m retired as of yesterday, what I mean is that I’m retired from working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I’m still going to work at Uber, Lyft and Grubhub.

Today my wife and I have to go to DPS to get one of those new “Real ID” driver licenses, needed to complete my retirement application (though I’m not going back to work again).

How to Switch Back and Forth Between Uber and Lyft

…switching from one app to the other leads to distracted driving…

Distracted driving is the number one cause of Uber/Lyft crashes, and when a driver has to switch back and forth between both Uber and Lyft driver apps it can cause a serious distraction in a moving vehicle.

In some markets, driving only for Uber or only for Lyft isn’t generating enough income for the driver. To increase chances of getting business, it’s possible to run both driving apps at the same time. When a ride request comes through one, the driver has to switch over and go offline with the other. To do that the driver has to take his or her eyes off the road and concentrate on the phone. This, of course, is distracted driving.

And we all know distracted driving can lead to an accident.

An Uber and Lyft driving using a smart phone to navigate to the next destination.

Imagine a driver with no passenger is on a busy highway. The smartphone is mounted on the dashboard and both the Uber and Lyft driver apps are online at the same time. Suddenly, the Uber app comes to life, making a startling jingle and displaying a blue pulsating button. With only seconds to accept or reject the ride request, the driver presses to accept the ride and a navigation screen is presented on the phone to help navigate to the requesting passenger. Throughout all of this, the Lyft driver app is still online looking for rides. This means the driver next has to switch over to the Lyft app and go off line and then switch back to Uber navigation before putting both hands back on the wheel and both eyes on the road – all while driving on a congested highway surrounded by moving vehicles. Sound like a recipe for disaster? The same happens, of course, if the Lyft app signals for a driver first. All this switching back and forth forces the driver to take his or her eyes off the road, leading to a potentially dangerous situation.

A vehicle involved in a crash clearly has an Uber and Lyft logo displayed on the driver’s door.

Fortunately, there is an Android app to help with that problem (not available for the iPhone). The app is called QRAD and is available on the Google Play Store. It’s free for 30 days so you have a chance to evaluate it before you spend a minimal monthly activation fee.

QRAD runs in the background silently. You don’t have to open it or touch it. When you accept a ride request, the app automatically takes the other driving app offline. When you are finished and drop off your ride, QRAD switches back and turns the other driver app back on. It’s really a very simple solution to a very real problem and it works flawlessly (most of the time). QRAD can be used on a trial basis so you can test it and see how it works. Eventually, however, you’re going to have to pay a low monthly subscription fee.

The author does not have any financial interest in QRAD, but I do have a subscription and I do use it. It really does help you to keep your eyes on the road and reduce the possibility of an accident.

The QRAD app logo as seen on the Google Play store.

On, LVFatMan says, “I recommend all drivers downloading this app, it’s free for the 1st 30 days .. It automatically toggles Your ride share apps when you accept one it automatically turns the other 1 off and when you Finish a ride it turns it back on, Very good app”. He goes on to say, “also QRAD has alerts now that give you a heads up warning in case the ride type is Uber Pool, Uber Eats, time/distance is too great etc. I was showing it to a friend and he told me it worked for him even though his trial period had already expired. Might be useful to even those who drive only for Uber or only for Lyft.” Here is a look at the kind of notification QRAD gives the driver:

Qrad not only switches between Uber and Lyft, toggling one or the other off when you get a ride, it also places large, clear notifications like this on the screen, notifying the driver how long it will take for the driver to reach the passenger.

Supplemental Income from a Gig Economy

I drive for Uber and Lyft. I also drive for Texas To Go and GrubHub. These provide my supplemental income.

My goal is to achieve $600 a month in supplemental income from these sources. Since these companies don’t pay for gas and expenses related to the job, such as food and auto repairs and maintenance, I have to take the total income and subtract whatever I pay for expenses while I’m out driving.

I have to do this in 10 to 12 days a month depending on how many days I’m available to drive. To achieve this, I set my daily driving goal to be $50 profit after expenses. I can easily generate this kind of money since I seem to make over a hundred dollars a day, then take my wife out to dinner for about $30 and maybe $10 for gas.

Another factor to be concerned about when doing these gig jobs is how much to set aside for taxes. Drivers in most states, including mine, are considered independent contractors, not employees of these companies. As such, the companies do not provide a W2 tax form at the end of the year, and they do not take anything out for your taxes. Instead, you must pay your own taxes. As a rule, I’ve been setting aside about $100 a month for the tax man, so that amount must be deducted from my profits and considered part of my expenses.

Driving for Uber and Lyft Simultaneously

Many drivers in smaller cities have both the Uber Driver app and Lyft Driver app online at the same time.

Think of it as fishing with two fishing poles in the lake at one time. When you get a nibble, you bring in the other line and work the one where you got the nibble. Many drivers in smaller cities have both the Uber Driver app and Lyft Driver app online at the same time. When they get a signal to pick up an Uber passenger, they’ll quickly flip over to Lyft and go offline, and visa versa.

“It doubles my chances of picking up a rider,” reported one driver. “But of the two, I get more business from Uber than from Lyft.”

In big cities and highly populated areas, the strategy of having two apps running is unnecessary. Pick whichever one you want to use and go with it. Most of the time the next ride is ready as soon as you drop off your passenger, and so it’s “back to back.” In smaller cities, however, it’s a different story. Lyft and Uber drivers get a notification of a ride, go to the pickup, drive the passenger to where they want to go, and then … nothing. So they usually drive home and wait a few hours. In areas where the use of Uber and Lyft are only moderate at best, having both apps open at the same time makes a lot of sense.

The trick is to make sure you turn off the other app as soon as you get a ride request. Even still, in cities of populations of 150,000 to 250,000 it’s hard to make a living from either Uber or Lyft (or both). Having both apps open at the same time will increase income for any given driver.