“I provide passengers with amenities such as water, rattles for babies, biscuits for puppies and disposable rain ponchos for downpours. I give them a car charger for their phones and keep stuffed animals for kids. I love being an Uber driver.” —Mary Ann Buchanan
Mary Ann Buchanan wasn’t ready to retire at 62 when the company she’d been working with for 30 years decided to downsize. So Buchanan, a licensed insurance salesperson, took advantage of the early retirement offer, went back to school and became a full-time home health aide.
A couple of years later her patient passed away, and by then Buchanan wanted to work part time — but not as a home health aide, which pays close to minimum wage. She needed more to supplement her social security income. After casting around for something to do, she found it when a 68-year-old friend who was driving for Uber encouraged her to give it a try. Uber is the largest of several so-called “ridesharing” taxi-alternative businesses that connects people with cars to people who need rides via a smartphone app. (Lyft is another coast-to-coast rideshare business, and local businesses exist in some cities, such as Via in NYC and Chicago.)
Now 71, Buchanan has spent the past year as a self-employed Uber driver on the Jersey shore, picking up rides in her Kia Forte sedan — and she’s more than making ends meet. We spoke with her by phone and asked her about life in the ride-share industry.
What inspired you to make the transition to being an Uber driver?
Ageism, basically. It’s not easy for someone my age to make a decent part-time income. I tried to go back to the insurance business part time, but I’d let my license lapse, and no one wanted to invest in re-certifying me. The assumption was that I’d call in sick all the time or might fall and sue them. They don’t say that, but after 30 years in insurance I know about risk.
I thought I might wind up at Walmart for $8 an hour and have to stand all day. Then I ran into a senior friend who told me to go to Uber. She said I could make my own hours, which really appealed to me. The freedom is magnificent. I make my own hours and my own decisions.
How do young riders react to an older woman driver?
They don’t react to my age, but they love that a woman is picking them up. A woman driver is disarming. Male passengers get off on telling themselves that they’re getting a lady driving them around, and women say they’re happy they got a woman driver — it’s a safety factor.
Do you pick up a lot of seniors?
Not as many as I should, considering how many seniors use cabs. The problem is, a lot of older people don’t understand the Uber app. The only way you can order an Uber is with a smartphone app, and it’s complicated. There’s no customer service by phone. When I do get an older passenger, I ask them how they learned the app. Usually their child or grandchild taught them.
How do your life and job experience help you in your new job?
I’m made for this job. I worked in insurance — a customer service job — all my life. I’m ready for anyone: executives, young people, seniors, commuters, tourists. I’ve been in corporate offices, so I understand how important it is for people to make the bus or train. My experience selling insurance taught me how to deal with people. I know how to ask customers questions, get them talking. I hear a lot of wonderful stories. I make business contacts for passengers. For instance, real estate people will ask me if I hear of someone who wants to buy a house to give them a card — same with mortgage brokers.
I provide passengers with amenities such as water, rattles for babies, biscuits for puppies and disposable rain ponchos for downpours. I give them a car charger for their phones and keep stuffed animals for kids. I love being an Uber driver.
Is being an older Uber driver dangerous?
Not at all. Not in the suburbs of Monmouth County, NJ where I drive. I don’t know of anyone who’s had trouble. Unlike regular cabbies, the good thing about Uber is you don’t have cash with you — rides and tip are prepaid by credit card, so you’re less likely to be robbed.
But you do have to be street smart. If you get a sense that a prospective rider is trouble or something doesn’t look right, you just drive on. I don’t have to pick anyone up. Driving at night is something I avoid. That’s part of being street smart.
Customers get rated, so I know if they’re good. And vice versa — if you’re a passenger, you can look a driver up. If you find out a driver is rated a 2 you can cancel for no charge.
What does it take to be a good Uber driver?
You need to know your area and be a good driver — no DWIs, nothing major, no accidents. You have to know how to follow electronic maps.
To make money, you have to be disciplined. When you work for yourself, you have to be more diligent and stick to a schedule to make money. The early bird catches the worm. Drivers after 8pm get the drunks.
What are some of the challenges and rewards?
Uber makes no demands — you can work as much or as little as you want. I work from 6am to noon weekdays, and on weekends I do the dinner crowd from 5 to 7pm. Saturday and Sunday morning I get the “rides of shame,” people who got drunk last night and left their car somewhere. They climb into my car at 9am with sunglasses and mumble something about picking up their car. That’s a good Saturday and Sunday income.
But it’s stressful when you’re responsible for someone’s well-being. You have to get them to their destination on time and safely.
Some drivers claim Uber is making money off their sweat. What do you think of that?
Welcome to the U.S.A. It’s a business. You never make as much as the person who’s paying you. Uber is getting 20 cents of every dollar I make. I think they’re earning their 20 percent. I can deduct that amount off my tax bill. If we were employees, we wouldn’t make as much. They provide a lot of information — they pay for the app that gets us rides and tells us where the hot pickup spots are — and they do all the administrative work. If you own a business you have to pay someone to do all that.
A lot of the drivers in bigger cities want to make a living, and that isn’t realistic, but most people working for Uber just want a little extra nut, like me. Part-timers love Uber. I love it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
I want to meet people and show them that at age 71 I can still handle myself, that I’m conscious of my location in the world. I don’t mean GPS location, but what you bring to this life, that you know who are. Aging with attitude means you don’t take crap from people or let people disrespect you because your hair is gray. It means you hold your head up high, you’re still a member of society and you’re making a contribution. I know that I’m the one who gets my passengers to work on time, not the bus driver or the cab driver, but the old lady who picks them up.
The Bottom Line
Training for Uber
No training needed. Uber drivers use app-based GPS to find their best route to wherever their passenger is going (yes, you do have to know how to use a smartphone).
What you can make
Buchanan works 20 hours and clears $350 to $450 per week — the equivalent of $20 an hour, plus $30 a week in tips. As independent contractors, drivers can deduct all expenses on their taxes, but they do have to pay the employers’ share of Social Security tax. Since Uber drivers are self-employed, you receive no benefits or job security.
You have to pay a little more for auto insurance to cover picking people up. On top of that, you pay for gas, maintenance, car cleaning and tires. To offset these costs, the IRS lets you deduct 69c per mile for maintenance. You also need a smartphone and a wireless plan with data. Buchanan takes an extra deduction for the amenities that she provides.