Poll: Pandemic Shifts How Consumers Use Gig Companies

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

NEW YORK—When ride-hailing heavyweights Uber and Lyft and delivery giants Grubhub and Instacart began making shared rides and meals available with a few taps on a smartphone, they transformed the way people work, travel, and get food delivered to their homes.

But the pandemic shuffled the deck for the so-called gig economy, as fear of contracting the coronavirus led many who once traveled in shared vehicles to stay home, and grocery delivery services struggled to keep up with demand from people who didn’t want to risk stepping into a store.

Consumer attitudes about using ride-hailing and delivery services have changed, according to a new survey from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It also highlights a wealth divide, where Americans with higher incomes are able to utilize the services to help reduce their risk of infection.

“People are worried. We know that,” said Dmitri Koustas, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School. “They’re worried about themselves and their families, and they’re concerned about the virus, and they’re also worried about workers.”

Among the people who used ride-hailing before the crisis, 63 percent said they haven’t taken a ride since March. At the same time, people with higher household incomes had more groceries delivered to their homes.

Those with household incomes of about $100,00 a year were roughly twice as likely to have increased their use of grocery delivery services than those in households earning less, the survey found. Overall, the percentage of people using delivery services remained about the same since the pandemic began, with those increasing their use balanced out by those cutting back, in some cases because of cost.

In Auburn, New York, few grocery stores offer delivery, and those that do are more expensive, said Patricia McAvaney, 49, who is disabled and living on a fixed income of $920 a month. She isn’t comfortable going to the grocery store but feels she has no choice.

“I’m on a budget, so it’s really not feasible to get everything delivered from that store,” McAvaney said.

Many Americans have been uncomfortable with delivery services during the pandemic. About six in 10 say they are very comfortable picking up food from a restaurant, compared with about three in 10 using delivery. Roughly another three in 10 said they are uncomfortable getting food delivered.

George Hunter, a 60-year-old antiques dealer in Kent, Washington, said he went out to restaurants three or four times per week before the pandemic. But he’d rather cook his own food than order in, and he prefers to pick his own produce at the store.

“I did a lot of my appointments in restaurants, and it was a treat, to go out and have somebody bring me coffee and do the dishes,” he said. “It’s no longer a treat. I’m in the house. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

A majority—54 percent—said they feel uncomfortable using a ride-hailing service during the coronavirus outbreak, preferring their own cars for travel. A similar percentage was uncomfortable with taxis, public transportation, and air travel, suggesting people are shying away from all forms of transportation in which they share space with others.

Thomas Sorenson, a 63-year-old handyman, used ride-hailing when he went out with friends before the pandemic. But they no longer get together, and he takes care of his elderly mother, so wouldn’t risk infection by using ride-hailing services.

Karena Mazur Israel, 52, said she would be more comfortable riding in long vehicles such as buses, station wagons, or limousines.

“On the bus, if you’re feeling like you can’t socially distance, you can get off of the bus and transfer, and wait until the next bus to come around,” she said.

The changing sentiments on ride-hailing and delivery are reflected in recent earnings for companies in those spaces.

Uber and Lyft lost a combined $2.2 billion in the second quarter, as people shied away from their services. Bookings in Uber’s mobility business declined 73 percent and the company laid off a quarter of its workforce. Uber’s food delivery business more than doubled its revenue compared to 2019, but it didn’t turn a profit. In April, Lyft’s rides were down 75 percent compared to the same time in 2019, and the company said it was laying off 17 percent of its workforce.

Grubhub’s average daily orders jumped 32 percent in the second quarter as diners ordered in, but it lost money as it spent heavily to prop up struggling restaurants and protect drivers.

The survey also weighed concerns for gig workers. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to express a lack of confidence in safe working conditions for ride-hailing and delivery drivers. Overall, 35 percent of Americans favored government regulations to increase wages and benefits for drivers.

Support grew somewhat—to 42 percent—if the cost of services were to increase 5 percent to ensure better benefits and wages for gig workers. But support dropped to 22 percent if it would lead to a 25 percent increase in the cost of such services.

Mazur, a stay-at-home mom who says her household income is around $150,000, said she would be willing to pay a few dollars more.

“I used to waitress and I used to do these kinds of jobs, so I definitely feel for the workers,” she said.

Hunter, the antiques dealer who makes about $60,000 to $70,000 a year, would not.

“If the companies don’t pay enough money, people will leave,” Hunter said. “And if you keep artificially paying people higher wages, it shows up in your economics.”

By Cathy Bussewitz & Hannah Fingerhut