Jeffrey Fang, DoorDash delivery guy, knows you judge his parenting skills, and he’ll join in your condemnation in a moment. He’ll explain that bringing his kids along on his Saturday night shift “made sense, until it didn’t,” and that in hindsight, he understands that it really, really didn’t. But right now, on the night of February 6, he’s not thinking clearly, and you’ll have to excuse him as he sprints pell-mell down a promenade of swank homes after the thief who just stole his phone.
He sees the thief dive into the back seat of a silver sedan, and as the car accelerates Fang keeps running alongside and grabs the passenger door handle—less DoorDash Dad than some kind of bespectacled Jason Bourne. The phone, you see, is his “moneymaking tool”; it’s how he feeds his family. But each stride is taking him farther from his unlocked Honda Odyssey minivan, parked illegally, engine humming, in a driveway where he was making a delivery, with precious cargo in the back seat.
Earlier that day, Fang’s wife said she needed quiet in the house in order to tutor their 6-year-old son, because their kids are sure as hell not going to be gig workers. Fang couldn’t afford to miss the money on a Saturday night run near San Francisco’s Billionaires’ Row, but in this city a baby-sitter earns nearly what Fang does. His solution was to fasten the younger kids, 4 and nearly 2 years old, into their car seats, ply them with ice cream, and cue Shrek?2 on the videoscreen in the van. He delivers expensive orders in ritzy neighborhoods, the only way this dumpster fire of a job is marginally worth it. He doesn’t expect to need the taser that he stows in his glove box. He figured the kids would be safe.
Now it has all gone sideways. His taser is uselessly back in the van. Yanking open the passenger door of the getaway car, he thrusts in his left leg, which gets battered with punches, and then swoops in to ride shotgun with the thieves. God, farther from my kids! Fang starts yelling, “Give me back my phone!” and pushes the door wide with his right foot in hopes of smacking a parked car. The thieves, apparently deciding that some Huawei Mate 20 X phone isn’t worth all this, hand Fang his cell. He jumps out, panting, and then runs and speed-walks the two blocks back to his parking spot.
The van is gone.
Fang’s Honda Odyssey was carjacked, with his kids in the back, on February 6.
Photograph: Kelsey McClellan
Twelve years after the birth of Uber, the country—the world—is still reckoning with how the on-demand economy has upended the market-place and people’s lives. Companies running on gig work emphasize the upsides: Here’s a job where you can be your own boss, set your own hours. They speak of the flexible and temporary nature of gig work, how most people do it part-time or to get back on their feet—points repeated before federal judges and in Facebook ads and New York Times op-eds.
Jeffrey Fang represents something else: the long tail of the economy that Uber built.
Fang has worked in the gig economy full-time for seven years. He signed on first with Lyft, and as the app tweaked fares and incentives and his income declined, he added Uber, then Amazon Flex and Kango. Then came the pandemic. As people locked down, he found work driving for delivery apps like DoorDash, Instacart, and Uber Eats. His phone lured him like a blackjack table. Each offer sliding on the screen was an enticing gamble; it might bring 18 bucks, 24 bucks, or, if he played it extremely well, 100 bucks. He ignored his friends’ and family’s pleas to get out, thinking he could somehow beat the financial odds.
For a long time, he did. He even felt moments of pride. Compatriots speak of Fang as a sort of gigging folk hero. He was one of the top drivers in the ride-hailing industry’s hometown. The guy to emulate. Yet here he is, age 39, in the middle of Jackson Street, screaming and dialing 911. Let your judgments pour out; the online chorus certainly let theirs. It’s nothing Fang hasn’t said in self-loathing ever since: Why in the world did he leave his kids?
Well, hop into Fang’s Odyssey. He got it back, dusted in graphite powder from fingerprinting but functioning. Behind the wheel is where Fang can talk. He doesn’t want to play victim. He wants to take blame and dole it where he says it’s due. He’s not going to pretend he’s a saint. He made bad decisions. He found ways to exploit the ride-hailing apps too. But to understand how a man could arrive at the point where he abandons his children to chase a phone, you might want to follow him on a journey. He’s ready to explain.
“The rideshare years were, in some ways, a tragedy of my own making,” Fang says. “By all measures, I should be successful, but I’m not.” He got more chances in life than most people do. So where to begin?
Maybe in 1994, when at age 12 he reluctantly stepped off a plane outside of Washington, DC. His father, who worked for Cummins, the multinational maker of diesel fuel engines, had taken a transfer, moving his wife and two sons from Taiwan to the Maryland suburbs. The older son switched his first name from Shao-yu to Jeffrey in order to blend in. He didn’t know English, but he loved American sci-fi, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Jean-Luc Picard—stately, cool-headed, the guy who gets things done.
In his own life, Fang tended to biff the execution. He was 15 when another transfer—this time to Cummins’ mainland China office—uprooted the family again. The company paid Jeffrey’s way at the prestigious International School of Beijing, but he slacked off among the scions of executives and diplomats. He was, he says, the world’s “most pathetic” rebel. To his parents’ disappointment, he didn’t opt for college, so they gave him orders to chaperone his younger brother in San Francisco, where they had family and his brother would finish high school. During the tail end of the dotcom boom, Fang, 18, was sulkily driving his brother to basketball practice and selling jewelry at Fisherman’s Wharf. Nudged by his parents, he enrolled in community college, floundered, and dropped out. A classmate referred him to Bank of America, where, soon enough, he was pushing mortgages.
The work didn’t come naturally—“You’re pushed to treat people like products,” he says—but it was a job he could do without a college degree. His mom, who was splitting her time between Beijing and San Francisco, started buying houses as an investment. She tried to help Fang get business by having him process one of her loans. She also urged him to borrow for a place of his own. Fang was 22 and earned only $40,000 after bonuses, but it was 2004. He got an adjustable–rate mortgage for a cookie–cutter $638,000 house in a working–class neighborhood. His parents pitched in on the down payment.
Four years later, scraping along at the bottom of employee performance targets, he quit the bank before he got fired. Now 26, he returned to City College, this time with zeal. He dove into philosophy, sashayed on the waltz team, and won election to the highest student office, student trustee, hoping to juice a transfer application to his dream schools, Stanford and Berkeley. Fang was on his way up, haranguing the community college board to step up their leadership, lobbying the California legislature in the Mao suit made for his high school prom, presiding over graduation on the same stage as Nancy Pelosi. The guy who gets things done.
In 2010, with only a part-time gig at a pet shop, he was also the guy who often missed his $2,500 monthly house payment. His house wasn’t worth what he owed on it, and in 2013 he was pushed into the ranks of the 10 million Americans whose homes were put into foreclosure during the Great Recession. He was lucky once more: His parents let him move into one of their investment homes, rent-free. Still, the grind—his money woes, college politicking, the side job—started pulling down his grades. A familiar shame set in: “Forget your dream, you’re not going to make it.” So, he says, “I left.”
During a trip to Beijing in 2013, Fang encountered a more welcome complication. His parents, he says, wanted him to get on with his life—their younger son was married, while Fang had “X number of failed relationships and nothing to show for it,” he says. They invited a young physical therapist over for dinner. He was struck by her gentle-ness and her college education. They stayed in touch, and over the months, via texts and calls, he fell “super in love.” They started talking about marriage. He told her that he was broke, his credit shot, and he had no job. She said they’d work it out. “I told myself, ‘She’s the one.’”
Fang pulled more than half the money from his 401(k) to buy a ticket to China for the wedding in April 2014. The plan was for his wife to eventually join him in San Francisco. But to make sure immigrants don’t become public charges, US citizens need assets to sponsor visa applications. Fang figured that it would take months, if not more than a year, to raise enough cash to bring his new bride to California. Soon after returning to San Francisco, married but alone, he learned that his wife was pregnant. Now, with two people to sponsor and his bank account empty, the process was going to take longer. He needed a job where he could save money and also take time off to visit Beijing for a few months a year. What job would allow that?
“I got good at it pretty quickly,” says Fang of driving. Looking back, this was precisely the problem.
One day, while Fang was walking in Union Square, a car plastered with a Day-Glo mustache drove by. He Googled “pink mustache.” While Fang had been consumed with City College politics, his adopted city had become a post-recession boom town. Since Uber’s founding, in 2008, venture capital had poured into the so-called on-demand economy. Using freelancers to meet the fluctuations of customer demand, apps promised groceries delivered, Ikea cabinets assembled, dogs walked. The companies’ pitch to drivers: In a city of hustling disruption, they too could be entrepreneurs.
Fang just needed the money. He climbed into his dad’s 2002 Acura TL and opened the pink app. After a couple hours of driving, he’d earned $71. “I got comfortable with this job really quickly,” Fang says, “and I got good at it pretty quickly.” Looking back, this was precisely the problem.
In the beginning, Fang was the driver of Lyft’s marketing fantasies. He cheerily accepted nearly every ride for eight to 10 hours a day. Customers gave him five-star reviews: “Great guy. Very intelligent.” He’d wait half an hour, unpaid, for a couple to finish their sidewalk spat before one of them climbed in. He handed out free water bottles. He chatted amiably, played the classical station, and dressed up as Batman for Halloween.
After a few months, Fang got more strategic. He divided up the day to surf the morning and evening rushes, when the surge would push up fares. Thursday through Saturday he ferried the bar crowd home until just before dawn. Fang imposed a tight budget, scoping the $3 Safeway burrito bowl or the $1.50 hot dog and soda at Costco. He was bringing home $1,200 a week before expenses—enough, because he was living rent-free, to put money away and send some to Beijing, where his wife had moved into his parents’ home. He’d visit her, usually for about two months at the beginning of the year and again for a month in the fall. The app, the passengers, and his strict frugality aligned in a virtuous circle. I’m helping people. I’m making money. This is gonna work out.
On a walkie-talkie app called Voxer, Fang heard about a Lyft driver hangout in a shopping plaza in a nice part of town. Starbucks let them use the bathroom. One guy spun music on turntables out of his back hatch, people caught naps in their cars, and Fang assessed a landscape of cliques—gym rats, DJs, vapers. A veteran Lyfter told him that $1,500 a week was about the max you could make. Challenge accepted. Fang doubled down, taking rides for 60 hours a week, and by the end of 2014 he topped $2,000 a week, then $2,500. He stopped asking the old guard for advice.
Fang found his own clique—the millennial worker bees: Jose Vivanco, a wry film student from Peru who’d started driving full-time and persuaded his girlfriend, Bianca Santori, to drive to support her sewing blog. Fallon Brooks-Magnus, 6 feet tall, proudly intersex and part Native American, who’d moved to San Francisco from Oklahoma for a drafting job but found that driving paid almost as well. Christian Perea, a witty UC San Diego graduate and former bank teller, who drove a Mercedes. Kris Rohr, a gamer from Palm Springs, who was the only driver in the group who could out-earn Fang.
The group traded tips and barbs in their own channel on Voxer, like long-haul truckers on a CB radio. The group cued a recording of Rohr screaming, “There’s Prime Tiiime!” Or Fang would say, “Good luck. Get that money!” when the surge hit, and everyone knew to follow the playbook they’d worked out: Don’t flock to the area with the highest surge—that will be played out by the time the heat map refreshes. Go to the area that’s just starting to inch up. Oh, and “Fuck Uber.”
A half-decade into the on-demand economy, Uber was the original and dominant juggernaut. By early 2015, 200,000 people across the country were driving for the company. Lyft, the perpetual underdog, had 51,000. But as ride-hailing services expanded, so did the backlash. As contractors, not employees, drivers weren’t guaranteed a minimum wage or paid expenses or offered sick days or health insurance. Taxi drivers staged protests. Drivers sued Uber and Lyft, arguing that since the companies dictated the manner and means of work, they met the legal standard of an employer. Fang and some of his group joined the class action suits. (Settlements came years later: Fang got $7,400 from Lyft and $3,800 from Uber but remained a contractor.) The companies retorted that they dealt in software, not driver services, and that labor laws were hopelessly out of date.
While the Voxer group knew that Lyft was benefiting from the business model, most of them decided their real war was with Uber. They didn’t mind that Lyft took a 20 percent commission from their rides if that’s what sustained the business. Even with Lyft’s commission, each of the Voxers was earning at least $1,200 a week—or about $50,000 to $60,000 a year—before expenses. They were exuberant with the fast cash. Lyft felt like a friendly place; Uber didn’t allow tipping and had a more brash, aggressive image. “We looked at Uber like it was Darth Vader,” Brooks-Magnus says. Sure, Vivanco drove for Uber in the mornings, because it seemed busier. “But I wasn’t happy about it,” he says.
No one’s allegiance to Lyft was deeper than Fang’s, who credited the app with rescuing him from failure. “I was at the lowest point in my life,” he says. “Lyft was a lifeline to get back up.” He spoke of the company as a benefactor that “takes care of its drivers.” Lyft offered a bonus to drivers who accepted 90 percent of calls, and word spread around the Starbucks lot that you could use the phone’s airplane mode to decline unprofitable rides—tricking the app—and still get the bonus. Fang argued that the hack wasn’t fair to Lyft and refused to do it. “Jeffrey is the oldest young guy you’ll ever meet,” Brooks-Magnus says.
When the Voxer group met during slow hours at 24-hour diners, Fang would order soup and gobble everyone’s leftover fries and burgers, spurring Scrooge McDuck jokes. He and Rohr constantly checked their phones, ready to dart back out when a surge hit. They were the most obsessive drivers in their group. But everyone got pulled into the game more than they’d expected. Despite the flexible schedule, Santori and Vivanco started missing deadlines on her sewing blogs, which Vivanco took pictures for. Rohr put on 20 pounds. For Perea, driving started to feel like his cigarette addiction: When he felt anxious about money, the only way he could relax was to turn on the app and work. “Your brain starts to sort of change,” Perea says. “Imagine every time you got a TikTok notification, it gave you 10 or 15 bucks.”
At one point, Brooks-Magnus, Vivanco, and Perea convinced Fang to teach them The Way, a tongue-in-cheek name for his sensei-like ability to rack up $2,500 a week while driving “clean”—no cheating shenanigans, just shrewd surge-surfing and grit. After warning them it wouldn’t be easy, Fang put them in training. He messaged his acolytes on Voxer at 4 am to make sure they were at the wheel, ready for airport runs. “Rise and shine, go get that money!” he would say. “It’s day three, and I’m dead,” Vivanco reported. After a month or two of hitting close to $2,000, they quit Fang’s program out of exhaustion. Fang didn’t want to blemish his reputation by revealing the toll it was taking on him too. He was swigging four espressos a night. Psoriasis flared on his back and scalp; with no health insurance, he went to a free city clinic. His accelerator ankle started to pop like an arthritic knuckle. He grew a gut. He’d work bar close until 3?am, then nap in the Starbucks lot until airport rides started at 4. The group just assumed Fang was intense for intensity’s sake, obsessed with the challenge of maximizing his profits. “I just don’t understand when he ever slept,” Brooks-Magnus says. Nor did they know exactly why he’d disappear to China for weekslong stretches.
Fang met his clique in a Laurel Heights parking lot where drivers hung out.
Photograph: Kelsey McClellan
In 2015 the friends pressured Fang to join them for a July trip to a cabin near Lake Tahoe, nearly four hours east of the city. Fang resisted, wanting to work, but his friends persisted: C’mon, he could take one weekend off. Fang finally gave in. One night during the trip, the group gathered at the cabin’s hot tub for a boozy game of Truth or Dare. Fang opted for truth, then revealed, matter-of-factly, that he was married and had a baby son in China. His friends erupted in disbelief, congratulations, and, for some, a pang of betrayal that he’d concealed something so vital. They returned to San Francisco chastened by the knowledge that Fang was playing at a different level of stakes.
That year, Fang capped off his best one-year haul—some $71,000 for 10 months of work. On New Year’s, he accepted one last ride on his way home at 3 am, then, fatigued, rear-ended a parked SUV.
The Acura needed more repairs than it was worth, so Fang decided it was time to get his dream car. Not only one that could hold more people, to get bigger tips, but the one with space to someday haul his family on adventures.
Aha! Here’s a listing: a used minivan. Honda Odyssey.
Rohr drove Fang out to the suburbs to pick it up.
By the time Fang sailed out of the car dealership with his Honda Odyssey in January 2016, the long-running feud between Uber and Lyft had turned into a full-on price war. For years, as the two services became nearly indistinguishable, they battled for customers by cutting fares, tit-for-tat, especially during slow times. They also started taking a bigger commission from new drivers. These experiments hit drivers hard, whittling away their earnings along with any residual sense of loyalty to either app. “Uber was the devil that you know,” Fang says. “Lyft felt like a betrayal. It’s the betrayal that cuts deeper. You just slowly lose faith.” Members of the Voxer group started to drive for their nemesis, Uber. Even Fang had secretly tried some Uber rides.
Around this time, the Voxer group gathered in Vivanco and Santori’s apartment in the Castro to launch a podcast. They called it Run TNC, for “transportation network company,” which is California’s official name for ride-hailing apps. On the show, the drivers were battle–hardened, cynical. Perea said he only got through the rides with obnoxious customers by thinking, “I can’t wait to fucking one-star your ass.” Vivanco mentioned his irritation with Lyft for advertising drivers who gave free candy to passengers: “I can’t do that! I don’t get paid enough.” That January, as Uber slashed fares by 10 percent and Lyft followed suit, everyone talked about feeling taken for granted. Some of their podcast episodes reached more than 9,000 downloads.
“I’m throwing all the money in on baseball season,” Rohr said. “You can still make decent.”
“What if baseball season is a total bust?” Vivanco asked.
“Hmm … that’s a good question,” Rohr paused. “Software engineering.”
Rohr, then in his mid-twenties, had thought about trying to become a tech worker. The closest he’d come to a stationary job was as a part-time contractor for an informal Lyft call center, something the Voxers all tried, to pad their flagging profits on the road. Lyft paid about $20 an hour for people to call inactive drivers and passengers and urge them to return to the app. They made other calls too. Cities and states were rolling out regulations, including driver background checks and insurance requirements. Lyft was pushing back. The Voxers lobbied Texas voters on an Uber- and Lyft-sponsored ballot measure in Austin, leaning on their status as drivers. Perea bailed after about a month, unwilling to do Lyft any favors. He dove into blogging for The Rideshare Guy about labor issues to subsidize his driving. Brooks–Magnus started looking for drafting jobs. She had loved driving for Lyft; she steered a pink-wrapped car in Lyft’s contingent of the Pride parade. The fare cuts changed her mind. She had to borrow money from Fang to make rent. “Over time, the love story falls apart and you realize you’re just the pawn in this big game,” Brooks-Magnus says. “I often felt like a sort of faceless, nameless not-even-a-person. Like the GPS unit or something.” In the spring of 2016, she moved back to Oklahoma.
Fang never took to Lyft telemarketing. Santori and Vivanco, though, threw themselves into the task. The $900 a week was less than they had made driving, but it was guaranteed, and they believed it allowed them to network with Lyft managers. The bet paid off. After a couple of months, they were promoted to contractor jobs in the marketing department, inside Lyft’s headquarters.
If Fang couldn’t make money playing by the rules, then no one could.
In the summer of 2016, when Fang returned from a long trip to China, he was fixated on how the fare cuts had sliced into his earning potential. He was crestfallen. As he saw it, the apps had broken the mutually beneficial agreement in which he’d toiled ethically for years. He started—-tentatively at first, then more boldly—to tease out a new philosophy, this time of mutual exploitation: “Being a choir boy has done nothing for me.”
In those days, the drivers were irked by an Uber app feature that blocked them from seeing an incoming ride’s destination until the passenger climbed in, at which point it was too late to decline an unprofitable ride. So one day, driving near Golden Gate Park, Fang tried his first, tiny hack: He turned off his phone’s cellular data, which disconnected his phone from Uber’s network. Then, sweat beading on his neck, he started the next ride. This revealed the destination, even though the passenger wasn’t in the car. From then on, if he saw that the rides wouldn’t pay enough, he would force-close the app. The passenger would get rerouted to another driver, none the wiser. It was a simple hack, and just the beginning.
Perea was depressed to see the king of clean driving go rogue. If Fang couldn’t make money playing by the rules, then no one could. “The Way,” Perea says, “became the Way to Cheat.”
The Voxer squad was now just Fang, Perea, and Rohr. The three joined a WhatsApp group of like-minded drivers, surfing the surge and exploiting loopholes before the companies patched them. “Everything was fair game,” Fang says. “It’s a tango: They go forward, you go back, give and take. You know you’re on the losing end, but you do it anyway.”
While Fang hacked with a sense of bittersweet resignation, Perea reveled in it. “It felt like vengeance; it felt wonderful.” They steeled themselves for deactivation, but without the hacks the job was no longer worth it anyway. By 2017, rideshare drivers were making 47 percent of what they had in 2013, according to a JP Morgan Chase Institute survey, though they might have been working fewer hours; one think tank estimated that Uber drivers nationally were making $9.21 an hour after all expenses.
For Fang the cheating became something of a crutch. He could make just enough to keep adding a bit to his savings, but he was too drained to look for something better. “I got complacent and tired and a little too comfortable,” he said. “At a certain point, it’s almost like an addiction.” He was still on the hamster wheel. “In Asia,” Fang’s mom, Annie, says, “everyone wants their children to be a doctor, lawyer, CPA, and an engineer in Silicon Valley.” But over the years, as she realized that Jeffrey’s driving wasn’t just some temporary gig, she made her peace. Fang was 35, and in 2017 he and his wife had a daughter, their second child—and the next year, they learned their third was on the way. Fang calculated he would easily need more than $100,000 in savings to sponsor the brood. Three years of driving 50 to 80 hours a week and his $5 lunch budget and free rent had gotten him halfway there.
Growing impatient, Fang’s father badgered him to bring his family to the US. His younger brother had already graduated from medical school. His mother offered to help with money, but Fang refused out of pride and anger at being pressured. His cousin offered to refer him for a nontechnical role at the tech company he worked for, starting salary $60,000; Fang thought he could still make better money on the road. His wife thought he was in a dead-end loop. Perea saw Fang as less addicted than stubbornly chasing a sunk cost. “The more you change your life to do this job, it’s easy to dig deeper and not want to give up on the idea that this is going to pay out.” One day, behind the wheel, Fang braced as he recognized his next fare. It was a woman he’d known at City College back in the day. As Fang recalls, the conversation went like this:
Wait, you’re Jeff Fang, like City College student trustee?
Like Jeff Fang
Wait—but you’re driving now?
Oh … how IS that?
In China, Fang’s wife had stopped working to raise the kids; the money he sent was enough for her to make ends meet while living in his parents’ home. Still, he knew that being a driver would demote his family in the eyes of their social circle. His wife had told the parents of his son’s preschool classmates that Fang worked in law. On one of his trips to Beijing, at a luncheon with some of those parents, Fang gamely perpetuated the ruse. As kids played and adults sat around a table chatting in one of their homes, he parried questions from an actual attorney with bits about law that he’d picked up at college. “It was like Catch Me If You Can,” he says.
Bianca Santori and Jose Vivanco bootstrapped up from drivers to corporate jobs.
Photograph: Kelsey McClellan
In October 2018, back in San Francisco, the WhatsApp group huddled in a burger joint and sketched out a drivers’ association, a way to organize against the apps. Fang, comfortable speaking publicly from his days as a student trustee, was president. The effort didn’t go much of anywhere. They were all too busy driving.
The work itself had become a parade of irritations: Riders who asked about Fang’s life then uh-huh-ed while phone-scrolling; the jerks who blasted a stadium horn in the car and said, “It’s OK. Don’t worry. He’s Asian”; and the dude who, unforgivably, mistook his Jean-Luc Picard Halloween costume for a concierge.
One day that year, Fang had lunch with Vivanco. After he quit the driving life, Vivanco had learned basic coding and left Lyft for a job test-driving autonomous cars for Cruise, the startup acquired by GM. He had risen to coordinating the road-testing program, and he invited Fang to Cruise’s slick SoMa headquarters. Vivanco offered to refer his friend to his new bosses, but Fang wasn’t sure test-driving would be any better than ride-hail. Vivanco gave Fang a tour of the game rooms, and they peered in at the garage of cars. Fang thought, Wow, a full-blown techie. “I see the growth you’ve had,” Fang told him, “and I wonder if I’ve missed the boat.”
Fang could make just enough to keep adding a bit to his savings, but he was too drained to look for something better. “At a certain point, it’s almost like an addiction.”?
Months later, in spring 2019, Lyft went public. As a token of appreciation, it gave drivers a bonus that they could either get in cash or invest in Lyft stock. Fang received $1,000—the equivalent of a dime for each of the roughly 10,000 rides he’d given over five years. “I call that cheap,” he gripes. Critics saw the bonus as a sop to drivers who might resent that the IPO meant a windfall for Lyft executives and the staff classified as employees. By then, Santori was among them. Devouring management books, networking with an employee resource group for Latinos, she had worked her way up from telemarketing to be the program manager of a team in Lyft’s own autonomous vehicle division. Given her limited time on staff, though, Santori received a humble four-figure stock option.
Around this time, out on the road, the loopholes that drivers had used to push up their earnings were all getting plugged. Uber continued upping its fees and changed the lucrative surge system to a flat dollar bonus in some cities. Fang saw his pay plunge. If he’d been working full-time, he now would make about $52,000 a year; with his trips to China, he was down to $32,000. Rohr had already begun experimenting with delivering packages for Amazon Flex, and they both signed up for Uber Eats with new emails, to get a hefty sign–up bonus. Fang started plotting a course into another wing of the sharing economy: He’d renovate one of his mother’s investment homes to rent on Airbnb.
In the fall of 2019, Vivanco and Santori married in an elegant ceremony in San Francisco’s Presidio, paid for with their respective six-figure salaries. They were bootstrapping Silicon Valley success stories. Fang wore the Mao suit from his high school prom and sat at a table with driver friends. While mingling with the tech employees in attendance, he steered clear of job talk.
Fang’s wife had given birth to their third child, a boy, the previous spring. Finding out that he actually needed some $150,000 to sponsor his family, Fang finally accepted his parents’ help. He headed to Beijing to collect his family just as a new coronavirus was rampaging through Wuhan. After six years of grasping toward the goal, he, his wife, and their three kids—ages 5, 3, and 9 months—landed in San Francisco in late February 2020. Fang wrangled 10 jumbo suitcases of clothes and toys off the baggage carousel. Two weeks later, the Bay Area issued the country’s first shelter-in-place order. Office commuters hunkered in their homes.
Perea decided that this was where gigging ended. He left the city for the mountains. Once again, Fang adapted. -People were locked down, but they still had to eat. He cued up Amazon Flex and Instacart, then Uber Eats, Caviar, and DoorDash. He and Rohr were the last two standing from the original squad. Having felt increasingly invisible and expendable, they couldn’t help but roll their eyes at the new title of respect. So now we’re essential workers.
Fang snapped on a mask and latex gloves. He’d been through two Covid lockdowns in China. But the uneasiness he felt going out into a world of contagion slackened as he and Rohr chatted into their Bluetooth earpieces and blazed around an empty city. Zero traffic, endless parking, no tickets—nothing but orders upon orders of takeout and end-times tippers, a gold-rush glory he hadn’t felt since the earliest driving days.
“Does it make me a bad person to hope the pandemic doesn’t get better anytime soon?” Fang said into Rohr’s earpiece.
“It just makes us greedy,” Rohr would say back. “But is that really so bad?”
Working on three apps on two phones each, the two of them quickly learned to “stack”—delivering for various apps simultaneously—putting the less lucrative ones at the end of the run. Contactless delivery meant ding-dong-ditching sacks on porches and running back to orders waiting in the car. Whole Foods shoppers were stockpiling water, milk, and toilet paper and shelling out $80 tips through Amazon Flex. The app asked freelancers to sign up to work blocks of time. Rohr huddled with a programmer friend, figuring out how to automatically grab all possible Whole Foods shifts available to him as soon as they posted, and he shared it with Fang. They were gunning to make $3,000 a week. Late one Sunday night, Fang’s haul was $2,900, and he thought he might crack the goal. Then his phone rang. The kids smeared lotion all over the house. Get home.
They couldn’t help but roll their eyes at the new title of respect. So now we’re essential workers.
The new dad life was overwhelming. Fang’s wife was locked down in a foreign country without a driver’s license or the ability to speak English. Their eldest son was enrolled in a public school kindergarten with a bilingual Mandarin program, but Fang was on duty to help him with the English homework. He loaded up the Costco shopping haul, drove the family to parks in the Odyssey, tucked the kids into bed. “I was trying to be a better husband to share the load,” he says, “even though I’m not successful, or you know, with a high-power earning job.” Though his bachelor working days were over, with the pandemic frenzy, Fang cleared $12,000 in May 2020.
It couldn’t last, of course. After a couple of months, the essential-worker gratitude tips dried up. People who’d lost their jobs in the pandemic joined the delivery ranks, increasing competition. Uber Eats cut its base fare, changing over to a more complex structure; Fang saw his earnings take a nosedive. They adapted again, drifting to DoorDash, scrutinizing incoming orders for profitability like diamond appraisers.
During the pandemic summer, Fang started to pass billboards of smiling ride-hail workers in ads for a state referendum called Proposition?22. In 2019, the California legislature had passed a law that would require gig workers to be classified as employees, conferring on them a minimum wage and benefits. That also meant gig companies would have to pay the state’s payroll and unemployment tax; one study showed that the law would deepen Uber’s operating loss by more than $500 million. The companies resisted, so the state attorney general sued Uber and Lyft, and the San Francisco district attorney sued DoorDash, to force compliance. Judges ruled against the ridesharing companies, and they threatened to leave the state.
Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash tried a new tack: Go straight to voters. They sponsored a ballot measure that defined “app-based drivers” explicitly as contractors and not employees, but sweetened the deal by requiring companies to help pay for health care insurance for those clocking more than 15 hours a week, to offer access to insurance for on-the-job injuries, and to guarantee an hourly income for “engaged” time spent driving a passenger or a delivery (but not for any time spent waiting). The gig companies claimed it would save jobs, allow workers flexibility, and maintain low fares. They shoveled more than $200 million into the campaign, the most in state electoral history, outspending the labor opponents 10 to 1. Their ads asserted that “the vast majority of app-based drivers say yes on 22.”
Fang wasn’t sure he wanted to be an employee, but he appreciated that lawmakers had forced clarity from the industry giants. If they want contractors, he reasoned, stop treating us like quasi-employees and don’t deactivate us for acting in our own interests. “They’re sitting on top of a volcano,” Fang says. “I don’t think they understand how much difficulty we’re dealing with.”
In November, Fang voted no on Prop 22; 59 percent of Californians voted yes.
A month after the Prop 22 vote, DoorDash held its IPO. Like other on-demand companies, it had struggled with anything resembling regular profitability, but that didn’t trouble Wall Street. The move made a billionaire of CEO Tony Xu, the 36-year-old cofounder.
Through the fall, to pad their plummeting delivery money, Fang and Rohr worked as census takers. It was the last job the two would do together. Rohr went on unemployment and finally started studying for coding bootcamp. The pandemic had forced him to leave—and he was grateful. In January, Prop 22 became law. Albertson’s grocery stores laid off their unionized drivers. They replaced them with DoorDash.
Now, in the mornings, Fang shepherded face-masked students to their private elementary schools for Kango, a hailing app for kids. By the late afternoon, he was delivering for DoorDash. He was eking out just over $800 a week before expenses, better than the federal poverty line for a family of five but well below San Francisco’s. Nearing 40, Fang’s hair was flecked with gray. He started tapping into his savings for living expenses.
Fang had taken the kids out on his deliveries twice before, to give his wife a break. His cars had been broken into in the past, but now he only delivered in wealthy neighborhoods, and he hadn’t yet heard about the carjackings that were skyrocketing during the pandemic. So, on February 6, he brought the kids to work again.
On a pizza delivery, Fang parked his Odyssey in front of a stately art deco apartment building near Billionaires’ Row. His 21-month-old was quiet, probably sleeping. He didn’t lock the minivan or turn off the engine, as doing so would cut off Shrek?2, which was entertaining his 4-year-old daughter in the back seat. He’d be gone less than a minute. Fang darted inside, dropping the pizzas in front of a ground-floor door. When he walked out, he saw a man with long curly hair sitting in the Odyssey’s driver’s seat.
He yanked open the door, yelling, “Get the fuck out of my car!” After a tussle, the man pushed past him and, grabbing the Huawei from his hand, took off running. Fang’s phone had been his money-maker, manager, fixer, and dictator for the past seven years. He thought he had a shot at getting it back.
After the chase, Fang rushed back with his phone in hand. But the van was gone—and his kids with it. He screamed as loud as he could for help. One of the men rushing outside said he knew—literally, knew—DoorDash CEO Tony Xu. He’d call him. Soon after, DoorDash texted other drivers asking them to watch for the Odyssey. An old friend of Fang’s from City College, a San Francisco journalist, tweeted a cry for help and dialed local reporters. Police pulled up at the scene, blocking off the street, and later issued an Amber Alert.
His wife called to ask when he was getting home, and he broke the news. Officers offered Fang a seat in a patrol car, but he declined: I’m not taking any comfort. His journalist friend arrived to wait with him, McDonald’s in hand, but Fang couldn’t eat. Press gathered, and in the glaring ABC7 News camera light, Fang pleaded to the kidnappers. “I just want my kids back. Times are hard. If you’re gonna have to resort to stealing, that’s a different matter, but please don’t hurt my kids. Help them return safely back to me and my wife. Please.” For all these years, his tunnel vision, his money-chasing, and his scrimping was for one single purpose: to bring his family together. He’d made many bad decisions—goofing off in high school, dropping out of City College—but none could possibly match the awfulness of this one.
Shuffling into his bedroom, he stared at his wife and their children, all sleeping together, and felt waves of relief and guilt.
While Fang remained at the crime scene, relatives arrived at his home across town to pray with his wife. After four hours, at nearly 1 am, police on patrol spotted a Honda Odyssey abandoned in a driveway just minutes from Fang’s house in the Bayview neighborhood, 7?miles from where the van was stolen. Both kids were in the back, out of their seats, refusing to emerge from the car. The police sped his wife to the scene. She rushed to the van, Fang says, and the older child fell into her mother’s arms, heaving with sobs. Police took the family to the hospital, where doctors looked over the children; they were unharmed.
Meanwhile, Fang continued helping police with the investigation. They drove him from the delivery spot in one of the city’s richest neighborhoods to his Odyssey in one of the poorest, asking him to identify anything out of place. They shuttled him to a police station in yet another part of town, where Fang gave a statement and an artist etched his description of the long-haired thief. Police drove Fang home at dawn. Shuffling into his bedroom, he stared at his wife and their children, all sleeping together, and felt waves of relief and guilt.
The following Monday, a payment for $10,000 landed in Fang’s DoorDash account. He’d also missed a call from a Silicon Valley area code and called back.
“Hi, who’s this? I’m returning a call from you earlier.”
It was Tony Xu.
Xu told Fang that, as a father himself, he was happy that the children had been found and that he wanted to make sure Fang had gotten the deposit. Fang listened, surprised at how young Xu sounded. He thanked Xu for the money, but, more than that, for texting the advisory to drivers, adding, “My thoughts about the gig economy are a different matter.” He reasoned that there was a time and place for his protests, and a phone call about his kids getting kidnapped wasn’t it. Xu told him to feel free to call back if he needed anything. After the call, Fang added the CEO’s number to his contacts. When Fang’s brother heard about the call, he wanted to know if Jeffrey had asked Xu for a job. He hadn’t.
The DoorDash kidnapping became national news. Many blasted Fang for leaving his children alone, but soon another narrative emerged. Prop 22’s critics used it as a prime example of workers drowning in the freelance economy. The attention was inevitable, but it outed the secret Fang had carefully maintained for years. A friend of his family’s in Beijing, who now lives in the States, texted Fang’s wife: “Did you know he was a driver?”
“I still feel the pull,” says Fang about being behind the wheel. “I’m basically in rehab now.”
Photograph: Kelsey McClellan
Jeffrey Fang’s gig odyssey ends here. Well, kind of.
A GoFundMe set up by his reporter friend raised more than $155,000 for the Fangs, an act of charity that Fang is well aware doesn’t solve the despair of the gig life for anyone else. This spring, a string of violent confrontations resulted in the killings of DoorDash and Uber Eats workers in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Fang earmarked the money to send his kids to college.
Rohr is studying for coding school. Brooks-Magnus runs her own home-design business in Oklahoma City. Santori is a technical project manager at Scribd, the ebook subscription service. She and Vivanco worry that the early startup ladders that helped striving drivers into management are harder to find, but Vivanco says his offer to help Fang remains. Perea, who writes an occasional salty post for his own gig economy blog, is also trying to figure out what’s next. “If this is the future of work,” he says, “we’re sincerely fucked.”
So how does a 39-year-old dad with a gig résumé change course? Fang still wants what the industry claims it offers: “I’ve gotten a taste of what it is like to be my own boss, and I want to be my own boss.” Fang finally finished the renovation of his mother’s investment house this spring and hopes to get it on Airbnb soon. He started studying for notary and real estate licenses.
But he also needed just a little bit of cash on the side. In the spring, passengers began hailing more rides again, and Lyft and Uber cranked up temporary incentives to lure reluctant drivers back. Fang decided to take Uber up on its promotion to give three rides for $100. He did just three and drove home. He worked in the mornings for Kango—“driving kids is OK”—and occasionally a night on DoorDash. “I still feel the pull. Less than before, but I still feel it.” He thinks he can keep it in check. “If you are somewhat enlightened to the cat-and-mouse game that Uber uses to get you back in, you’ll take the catnip and you won’t get hooked.”
Jeffrey Fang, reformed gig worker, knows you’re doubting his capacity for restraint. “I’m basically in rehab right now.”
Perea called him this spring. Physically leaving gigging was the easy part, Perea had said. But it had taken him an entire year to unplug his mind from the addictive thrum, to reclaim his attention and stop checking his phone.
Fang knows what he meant. The afternoon after the kidnapping, after talking to police and reporters, Fang retreated to a nook in his house behind the garage, where his family tends to leave him alone. It was a bit after 3 pm, the hour he usually started getting ready to make deliveries. Sunday evening is the pinnacle of takeout. Fang peeked at the DoorDash app. A red cloud marked “Busy” hovered over the grid of the city, and the candy-red button to “Dash Now” beckoned. The incentive was high—$4 extra per delivery. The familiar tug: You’re missing out on money.
With his Odyssey impounded as evidence, he’d have to borrow his parents’ car, which would entail asking his mom for permission. He imagined her taciturn disapproval, the justified hell from his wife.
Better not push it.
Fang closed the app. The familiar map disappeared. He headed upstairs to join his family, pretending for the kids that everything was OK, pretending he didn’t still want to work.
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