A way to pick up a few bucks

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Barbara Ruben

Walter Shepherd, who retired in his 50s, earns about $300 a week driving Uber customers around the area in his Nissan Rogue. Nearly a quarter of Uber’s drivers are over the age of 50. Uber — and its rival on-demand ride service Lyft — are finding older drivers particularly enjoy the flexibility of the job and its social aspects.
Photo by Rey Lopez

Walter Shepherd’s career has been driven by traffic. He was a cabbie for a couple years when he was in his 20s, and then spent years as a traffic signal technician for the City of Alexandria, Va.

When he retired four years ago, Shepherd spent a lot of time playing golf and working out. But he found he still had a lot of hours of the day to fill.

Then Shepherd, who is 63 and lives in Ft. Washington, Md., saw that Uber was looking for drivers. Uber is the rapidly growing company with a smartphone application that lets people easily request a lift from drivers like Shepherd, who use their own cars.

“I just wanted something I could do when I wanted. Not a job,” Shepherd said of his part-time work with the company.

Older drivers are a growing component of Uber’s freelance workforce. In fact, nearly one in four are age 50 or older, according to Uber spokesperson Kaitlin Durkosh.

It’s a popular option for older drivers who have both time on their hands and want the freedom to decide if and when they’ll work. For example, “if they aren’t comfortable with driving at night or rush hour, that’s OK,” Durkosh said of Uber’s older drivers.

While most drivers quickly get the hang of the smartphone app for picking up riders, Durkosh said the company has support centers in Washington and Baltimore where new drivers can get help with technical issues.

Danyelle Ludwig, a spokesperson for Lyft, a similar ride-providing company, said she could not share information about its drivers’ demographics. But she noted that, “drivers in the 55-plus age group value flexibility more than any other age group. They also value the community and meeting other people more than any other age group, which translates into fun, memorable rides for passengers.”

This flexibility was one reason AARP’s Life Reimagined program — an initiative that encourages members to explore new directions in their careers and personal lives — partnered with Uber last year to spread the word about working for the company.

“When you look at the Life Reimagined audience — primarily people in their 40s, 50s, 60s — a lot of these people are facing unprecedented financial pressure,” said Adam Sohn, vice president for strategic initiatives at Life Reimagined.

“We saw this as a great way for people who are in the midst of career-oriented transitions, or looking to stay connected to the community or meet new people, to stay plugged in and make a few dollars at the same time.”

Part of the “sharing” economy

Sohn said that Life Reimagined wants to help older adults better take advantage of the new “sharing” economy. This includes not only earning extra income through services like Uber and Lyft, but also Airbnb, which enables homeowners to rent out rooms to tourists to earn extra cash.

Veronica Rose, who splits her time living with her father in Washington, D.C., and daughter in Upper Marlboro, Md., is similar to the Uber drivers Sohn has in mind.

Rose retired at age 62 from a job working as a financial aid advisor for colleges, but discovered she needed more income in retirement than she had expected. Her granddaughter suggested she consider Uber.

“At first, I thought she was a little crazy,” Rose said. “[I thought] that she should drive for Uber, not me.

“It’s hard finding a job at 62. But for Uber, all I had to do was submit an application, have them check my driving record and do a background check.” Soon she was able to start picking up riders in her 2012 Chevy Equinox.

Uber and Lyft drivers do not have to buy extra insurance — they are protected by additional insurance from the companies. Drivers do, however, have to buy their own gas and pay their own taxes.

How much can you earn?

Uber drivers keep “up to 80 percent of every fare,” according to Durkosh, although she declined to say how much drivers earn per hour on average. Lyft drivers do so as well and, unlike Uber drivers, are allowed to accept tips.

But just how much drivers actually earn after expenses is up for debate. Some D.C. Uber drivers went on strike last fall: They said they wanted fares to be raised, and to have an option to accept tips.

An Uber study from last year showed that Washington-area drivers earn up to $17 an hour. A service called Sherpa Share, used by workers to help tabulate their on-demand work, found that Uber drivers in Washington made an average of $12.17 per trip after expenses, while Lyft drivers earned $13.95 on average.

Julie Campbell, who drives for both companies about 20 to 30 hours a week, said she has found this to be true. A resident of Suitland, Md., she took early retirement from her job as an administrative assistant last year.

“It’s convenient for me, but I wish it was a little more lucrative,” said Campbell, 61. “I’m averaging about $15 to $20 an hour. I’m grateful because something’s better than nothing.”

But while Lyft may pay a bit better, it is a less popular company, so there are fewer takers for a ride in Campbell’s 2014 Ford C-Max hybrid.

At the same time, increasing numbers of drivers are jumping at the chance to earn extra money, so there’s more competition on the road for getting passengers, she said.

“It takes me longer to see the same amount of money [as before],” said Campbell, who began with Lyft two months ago, after her Uber income declined.

Other compensations

Drivers say that, despite the area’s notoriously snarled traffic, they manage to stay calm and generally enjoy the drive. They particularly like interacting with their passengers.

“I get different clientele and really enjoy conversations with people. I’m really, really enjoying the person-to-person contact,” Rose said.

Shepherd likes the political repartee in this election year in the nation’s capital as he drives his blue 2009 Nissan Rogue. He calls himself a social democrat, but enjoys hearing other views.

He recently had three trips with people in their 20s, who were all Republicans. “They had some interesting ideas I would never have heard otherwise,” he said.

And then there are the fellow Redskins fans: “We’re just so happy talking about [the team]. It really makes the ride fun.”

Shepherd, who makes about $300 per week, has had only one bad experience. “There was one woman who just slammed the door and said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’”

Both drivers and customers can rate each other following the trip, using a five-point scale. A driver’s rating is shown on the smartphone app when a ride is requested, enabling the requester to decide whether to accept the first driver who pops up, or to wait a bit for another one.

Drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings fall below a certain threshold. It’s meant to be a deterrent to bad behavior and bad driving, and it seems to work.

“I try to be sunny and welcome people,” Shepherd said. “This is a consumer-driven country.”