Unable to afford retirement, Tampa Bay seniors turn to Uber

More seniors say they’re entering gig economy as costs rise

FILE - In this May 15, 2020 file photo, an Uber sign is displayed inside a car in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File) (Nam Y. Huh, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Donna Durham spent her life in motion. A career truck driver, she found herself craving the open road when she retired, and missed camaraderie with others.

But there’s another reason she became a driver for Uber.

“I needed the extra income,” said Durham, who is 67. “Trying to live off of Social Security is just not an option. I think that’s probably the problem a lot of seniors have.”

As costs rise, some seniors have turned to gig driver apps like Uber or Lyft to afford life in Tampa Bay.

Florida, home to not one but three Fountains of Youth, has long been a magnet for older adults. Tampa Bay is no exception.

For decades, St. Petersburg was lampooned as “God’s Waiting Room” due to its large retiree population, and Tampa was voted among the top ten “Best Places to Retire in the U.S.” in 2022.

But it’s more expensive than ever to live here in the wake of the pandemic.

“The perception of Florida living and the reality of Florida living are two different ends of the spectrum,” said Yvonne Brockington, 51, a Safety Harbor resident who lost her full-time job in November. “I work so much down here it’s not even funny.”

Brockington now drives 40 hours for Uber on weekends. She has a teenage son, a mortgage, car payments.

“The price of everything is going up,” she said. “All weekend long I’m either driving or sleeping.”

She’ll keep driving for Uber even after she finds full-time employment, she said.

“I need to pay my house off if I’m ever going to retire,” Brockington said. “I don’t have a pension to fall back on. I’m just — I’m screwed. So I need a roof over my head.”

Older adults make up a high share of gig drivers in Tampa Bay.

Twenty-nine percent of Lyft drivers in the area are over the age of 50 — compared to a quarter of Lyft drivers nationally, according to data provided by the company.

Roughly 17 percent of Tampa Bay Uber drivers are 55 or older, said Javier Correoso, an Uber spokesperson, compared to 16 percent across the country. Five percent of those drivers are 65 or older — placing them solidly in retirement age.

Durham collects $718 in Social Security monthly, but it’s not enough to cover all her expenses, she said. Durham owns her mobile home — but not the lot it’s firmly planted on. The rent spiked last year.

“It’s really hard,” said Durham, who drives for both Lyft and Uber. “I’ve got car insurance. I’ve got a car payment. Electric, phones, all this stuff.”

The job itself is getting more expensive. There are costs that come with being a driver — most must purchase rideshare insurance, in addition to regular car insurance, to cover accidents that occur while transporting a passenger.

Gasoline prices remain a constant source of worry for rideshare drivers.

“Gas is killing us,” said Linda Swanson, 61-year-old Uber driver who lives in Pinellas Park. “With the higher inflation is going, tips are dropping too.”

For some older adults, driving for Uber or Lyft holds a different appeal: It’s guaranteed time with others.

“I needed to get out of the house,” said Joseph Size, 80, a Plant City resident who began driving for Uber after his wife died two years ago. “She had a lingering illness, and I was really busy with all of that. There I was at the end of it all, just sitting here, retired and looking for something to do.”

After COVID-19 was first discovered in Florida, other senior gig drivers sought to avoid social interaction.

“I switched from having passengers in the car and went to UberEATS,” said Nevin Overmiller, a 78-year-old Seminole resident. “And that was great, cause people didn’t want to leave their homes.”

Staying safe along the way remains a challenge for many in the pandemic.

On New Year’s Eve, a typically high-profit day for rideshare drivers, Durham was hospitalized for chest pains. The doctors told her she’d tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’m very very careful — I clean up the car, hand them hand wipes,” said Durham, who lives alone and said she doesn’t interact with others outside of work. “But that’s the only thing I could think of — that I got it from a passenger.”

She’ll keep driving after she’s discharged and recovered, she said. She can’t quit.

“You’ve got to protect yourself best you can, that’s all you can do,” Durham said.