The Uber driver app on a Samsung smartphone. (dennizn vai shutterstock)
The Uber driver app on a Samsung smartphone. (dennizn vai shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT – As Connecticut emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, some residents report a difficult and costly experience using rideshare apps like Uber, in part due to a shortage of available drivers.

In an April post on Uber’s website, Dennis Cinelli, the company’s vice president of U.S. and Canada mobility, said many drivers stopped working in 2020 because they could not count on enough trips to make the job worth their time. Things have changed.

“In 2021, there are more riders requesting trips than there are drivers available to give them – making it a great time to be a driver,” Cinelli wrote.

In the meantime, some Connecticut residents say those shortages have forced them to plan well in advance to find a ride. Ariana Reyes, a New Britain resident who uses Uber to commute to and from work, said she’s gone from calling for a ride the moment she needed one to scheduling the trip ahead of time. Often, she runs into trouble. 

“Most of the time I schedule an Uber, get a driver and they cancel,” Reyes said. “That happens about four times until I get a solid one.” 

That unreliability can make the app frustrating and impractical for individuals looking to forget their own keys and enjoy a night out, New Haven resident Anthony DiPietro said.

“There have been times where I ordered an Uber and it will be canceled,” DiPietro said, adding that he resigned himself to alternatives like “driving myself or making someone else drive like a friend.”

The company has attempted to address the problem with a $250 million investment to boost drivers’ earnings.

“We want drivers to take advantage of higher earnings now because this is likely a temporary situation,” Cinelli wrote. “As the recovery continues, we expect more drivers will be hitting the road, which means that, over time, earnings will come back to pre-COVID levels.”

That will likely come as a disappointment for the drivers who have sought unsuccessfully to form a union in recent years. In 2019, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Uber drivers are not classified as employees, making them ineligible to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act.

Here in Connecticut, a group called the Independent Drivers Guild has pushed unsuccessfully for legislation giving them greater bargaining rights.

Aaron MacEachen, an Uber driver who has worked in cities in Connecticut and Massachusetts, said he has noticed a pattern of driver shortages in nearby states and has witnessed rider frustration firsthand. 

“Rider availability was not an issue for me in the least,” MacEachen said. “In fact, it is so hard for people to find an Uber driver in Boston that they are extraordinarily grateful when they do get one.” 

Meanwhile, some riders report the cost of catching a ride has increased. Guilford resident Nicholas Mascola said the bill for splitting an Uber with friends after a night out has risen sharply since he started using the service in 2016.

“Uber prices have definitely risen,” Mascola said. “It’s just become not worth it, especially if we can’t fit everyone in one Uber anymore.” 

In order to ensure driver safety from COVID-19, Uber has altered its rules by prohibiting riders from sitting in the passenger seat. This change reduces the number of riders able to split the bill, increasing the cost for those remaining.

On its website, Uber calls the pricier rates “dynamic pricing,” which applies when many people are requesting rides in the same area.

MacEachen said the driver shortages have also made other variations of the application, like UberEats, more difficult to use. 

“The lack of Uber drivers has been the norm at least since the mask ban was lifted,” MacEachen said. “Much earlier in the pandemic it was hard to find people to even order UberEats.” 

Although Uber anticipates its pandemic-related incentives will help reel in more potential drivers, some individuals still see taking fares as a way to make quick cash and not a stable job to have a steady income – especially after the pandemic. 

“Uber is only meant to be a part-time gig, an extra way to make money,” MacEachen said. “Not something to replace a full-time position’s salary. I don’t think this is something to live off of.”