Is Uber driving the new waitressing?

FILE: Actors, musicians and others in creative fields are turning to rideshare driving as a means to supplement their income.
FILE: Actors, musicians and others in creative fields are turning to rideshare driving as a means to supplement their income.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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One of the latest ways to pay the bills in a town where actors and artists abound isn't waiting on tables — it's driving a rideshare car.

Uber and Lyft and other on-demand services are changing the economy, researchers say, and those in creative industries have turned to driving to supplement their income when once they might have spent their free hours waiting tables.

For those without steady hours, rideshare driving is a natural fit, said Arun Sundararajan, professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. Actors and artists have already set themselves up to work gigs as freelancers, so driving is another way to put food on the table, he notes.

Sundararajan, who studies on-demand services like Uber, said the shift to freelance jobs could make it harder for workers to maintain a middle-class standard of living. But he believes opportunities like rideshare driving are benefiting those participating in the creative economy.

“Having an economy in which you can make a decent living as a freelancer, and there's a good digital infrastructure for getting a reasonably steady volume of work, I think will encourage a lot more people to pursue their creative dreams," he said.

Uber and Lyft both have more than 100,000 drivers nationally, and new services like Instacart and Door Dash are popping up, using models similar to ridesharing to deliver food to users. Statistics from the IRS also show increasing numbers of 1099 forms filed for independent contract work in recent years, compared to slower growth in traditional W-2s.

There's debate among economists whether the relatively low wages that drivers get and the lack of benefits including health insurance are hurting more than helping the American workforce.

A recent survey showed drivers in Los Angeles make an average of $17 an hour, a figure that doesn't take into account the expense of gas and car upkeep.

But for Greg Fennell, an actor and producer who drives for both Uber and Lyft, rideshare jobs fill the dry spells between acting and producing gigs. 

For a while, he worked the night shift, 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., for Time Warner Cable. The work kept his days open for auditions, but the shift was grueling.

“That is damaging to your body,” he said. “I'm tired, I'm looking older than I am, I'm getting bags under my eyes...not good for being on camera.”

Fennell said as an Uber or Lyft driver, “you can set your own hours, do it when you want. There's no boss. You can do it as you please.”

According to Lyft, more than half of its drivers in Los Angeles work or aspire to work in the entertainment field. It is one of the most common occupations listed by local Uber drivers, second only to those who are self-employed.

Rideshare driving is so popular among actors and entertainers that Uber sponsored a concert last month to showcase its drivers who are also musicians, like singer Paige Lewis.

 Uber sponsored a concert on Oct. 21 featuring musicians who moonlight as rideshare drivers.

“It's like kind of the new waitressing is what I always kind of say,” according to Lewis. “This is truly by far the most flexible thing that I've ever had and it's been wonderful.”

Beyond the money and the hours, actors-turned-drivers accrue a side benefit: the gift of passengers who are real characters.

“You have personalities. You have people with stories,” Fennell said. “It's life, it's inspiration, you know...it's definitely about human connection.”