Car-dependent Chicago gig workers make changes as gas prices remain high

Even before gas prices skyrocketed across the country, VTC driver Martinelli Quintanilla tried to stretch his gas tank as much as possible.

Quintanilla – who also works in the hospitality industry – drives a Toyota Prius, which uses a gasoline engine and an electric motor to power the car, to save gas and stays in the loop during rush hour to get speed. best advice and try to make trips under 30 minutes. It’s part of his strategy to gain as much as possible in the gig economy while trying to maximize his fuel.

It usually costs Quintanilla, 51, about $60 to fill up his gas tank, which he usually has to do every other day. When working at his suburban hospitality job, Quintanilla leaves his Chicago home about an hour and a half early to carpool along the way.

“I go to work looking for people and I usually make around $40 to $50,” Quintanilla said in Spanish. “When I get home, I make another $50 to $60. This is benefiting, especially now, from gas prices. I don’t lose a mile.

Martinelli Quintanilla uses his car as an Uber driver in the Loop. He strategizes to get the most out of his job despite skyrocketing gas prices, including driving a Toyota Prius.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In recent weeks, gasoline prices in Illinois have topped $5 a gallon, according to analysis by GasBuddy. There have been some dips in the average price, but prices are expected to climb to $6 a gallon soon with prices peaking in July, said Patrick De Haan, head of oil analysis at GasBuddy.

Gig workers — who work as independent contractors — have been driving people around and delivering groceries and restaurant takeout orders throughout the coronavirus pandemic. A Pew Research Center survey in August 2021 found that Hispanic adults, about 30%, were more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to do gig work. Black and Asian adults were also more likely to work on-demand than white adults, the survey found.

Some of these workers have taken a hit during the pandemic. Taxi drivers in Chicago like Quintanilla have grown from 110,288 in September 2019 to 66,548 in September 2020, according to a report from the University of Illinois Labor Project for Middle Class Renewal.

And even before the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, there were questions about whether these workers were earning minimum wage after accounting for expenses. Now many are trying to make the most of their income while trying to keep up with soaring prices such as fuel.

Gas prices started to rise when Russia invaded Ukraine, but rising costs are also due to reduced oil refinery capacity, which means refinery supply cannot keep up with demand .

“There’s just less refining capacity than there was several years ago because of COVID, because of Hurricane Ida shutting down a refinery last summer, because of a refinery fire in 2019 “, said De Haan. “This makes it very difficult for refineries to meet demand.”

Drivers can get the most out of their gas tank by reducing their speed to 10 to 15 miles per hour, slowing the pace of acceleration and using cruise control, De Haan said, adding that participating in Loyalty programs at gas stations can also help lower prices. .

The companies that many construction workers use have tried to relieve the drivers. In March, Uber implemented a consumer surcharge ranging from 45 cents to 55 cents for each rideshare ride, and a surcharge ranging from 35 cents to 45 cents for each Uber Eats delivery due to gas prices, according to a press release.

Lyft, another ride-sharing company, implemented a 55-cent fuel surcharge for each ride in March, and as of Tuesday it remained in place until further notice, according to a company spokesperson. .

In the first quarter of 2022, ride-hailing drivers in the Chicago metro area earned approximately $13.99 per ride, which was slightly higher than the $12.42 they earned per ride in the first quarter of 2021 , according to an analysis of data from Gridwise, an app that lets gig workers track their earnings.

Food and grocery delivery drivers saw their earnings per trip decline over the same period. In the first quarter of 2022, grocery couriers earned $16.14 per trip, compared to the $18.33 per trip they made in the first quarter of 2021, according to data from Gridwise.

Overall, data from Gridwise shows that the gross monthly earnings of this type of gig worker were up from the first quarter of 2021, but their earnings had fallen from what they earned at the end. of 2021.

Micheal Quentin, who previously worked as a driver, switched to food deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent weeks, Quentin, 27, from Chicago, has noticed that they weren’t always able to fill the car’s gas tank, and it seems more of their income is paying for fuel. Quentin estimates they make about $600 a week delivering food.

“I instinctively try to avoid shorter journeys because I know that starting my car engine over and over again will eat up a bit of chunk gas more than just driving,” Quentin said. “I’ll try to do longer trips because I’ll make more money and I’m less likely to start my car over and over again.”

Quentin hopes to become a game developer, but it’s not just rising gas prices that are pushing them to change industries. Quentin is also looking to pay off $200 in parking tickets they recently received while picking up food deliveries from restaurants.

“It was a major loss of my income, and it took away a few days of work,” Quentin said.

Gia, who has asked that her full name not be published for fear it will affect her job, said she has been doing grocery deliveries full-time since around 2014 but has recently started considering to change jobs because his income has decreased.

“With gas, I pay over $60 every other day, and so if I don’t earn that, it’s not worth being here,” the 48-year-old said.

At the start of the pandemic, when residents stayed home, Gia sometimes made $1,200 a week delivering groceries in Chicago. But her take home pay has started to drop, and she recently earned just $378 after making deliveries for five days.

She thinks her salaries are changing not just because of fuel prices, but also because of how delivery apps work, as well as changes in drinking habits and tipping.

Gia, who also sells jewelry that she makes, recently sold her apartment and moved back in with her family. At the gas pump, she changed the type of gas she buys and usually goes to a place like Costco which usually has lower gas prices.

“I’m looking for another job because this job is now at the point where it no longer pays my bills,” Gia said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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