A recent OneZero report alleges Bird's fleet manager program is "luring contract workers into debt" through a business model that asks contractors to pay up-front fees to manage a fleet of scooters under Bird's operational oversight.
The report claims contractors involved in this program are saddled with "thousands of dollars of debt on scooters ... in addition to repair costs and possible liability for any accidents that occur." It also prompted a scathing writeup in Business Insider Germany, in which lawyer Andreja Schneider-Dörr said the "debt risk is extremely high" for participating fleet managers.
Yet reporting from Smart Cities Dive has uncovered that this is not always the case — and some fleet managers are cashing in on the opportunity as a way to financially recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smart Cities Dive spoke with several fleet managers (all of whom wished to remain anonymous due to non-disclosure agreements outlined in their contracts) and a program applicant who declined to sign the contract. One fleet manager told Smart Cities Dive the program has "been amazing." The manager said the hours have been tough — he has not taken a day off since July 1 — but the money is well worth it, bringing in $2,000 to $5,000 a week.
"It's changed me and my fiance's life. We've never made this much money in our lives," the fleet manager said. He and other fleet managers have told Smart Cities Dive that those who struggle with the program are likely not putting the required effort into the job.
"This job is a life-changing opportunity if people actually put the time in and have the patience for it," the fleet manager said. "I understand it's not for everybody ... I guess some people just don't want to do it or the work ethic isn't there."
Another fleet manager told Smart Cities Dive that his experience in the program has also been highly lucrative. He echoed other comments that suggest the job is hard work and not for any average Joe without fleet management experience.
In a recent disclosure with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Fidelity Investments revealed it has marked down the value of its Bird investment by 17% this year, according to dot.LA, which said the company is now "dramatically downscaling." Bird called its fleet manager program “a way to help local businesses and entrepreneurs get back to work in a socially-distanced way,” though it's also been touted by Bird as a way to manage the operation of its own devices amid this pandemic and economic crisis.
Efforts to hire fleet managers have been supported by heavy marketing and Craigslist ads, but this hiring process may be at the source of the program's criticism as questions loom around how Bird selects its managers. The program’s application form asks interested participants for basic information including name, phone number, location and work availability — but its lack of upfront qualifiers raises red flags around the incoming pool of applicants.
A trap for inexperienced contractors?
In late 2018, the company introduced Bird Platform with a mission of empowering contractors to brand, price and operate Bird scooters as they please — for a "small fee." This program was marketed at the time as an opportunity for Bird to remove some of the barriers around its traditional scooter-sharing model, and enabled Bird to leverage competitive advantages, as seen in Chicago when both Bird and Platform operator Sherpa were awarded pilot contracts in 2019.
The buzz around Platform fell silent after some time until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Bird began quietly staffing its fleet manager program — akin to a "franchise model" like Platform, OneZero reported.
Bird told Smart Cities Dive that its fleet manager program is not a franchising model "as some have inaccurately portrayed it to be," because the managers do not own or personally finance the vehicles. When asked about its hiring process, however, Bird shared a list of applicant requirements that are similar to what would be asked of a franchisee, including having a business license and sufficient space to store dozens of vehicles.
Bird also said the number of fleet managers it hires "varies by market and the size of our fleet in-market," but did not share an exact number of managers that have joined the program since its launch.
A Lime scooter charger in Chicago told Smart Cities Dive that he applied to the program to make some extra cash, but backed out when he saw the contract. The source said he went through an interview process that offered "salesman pitches."
"They were gonna bring in anyone," he said, suggesting the company was seeking amateur candidates. "They told me they would train me how to fix ... and that there's someone in the area who could come out to help if I had issues." The source went on to say the company assigns each fleet manager with a particular operating area in the city, which he felt was unfair to managers placed in undesirable areas.
Bird told Smart Cities Dive that while it "values diversity" among its fleet managers, it prioritizes a number of qualifiers including experience; infrastructure (i.e. having a means to collect scooters); availability; strategic thinking and problem solving; and passion to make communities "safer and more clean."
Bird also said its hiring process "involves in-depth and detailed explanations surrounding the payout logic and vehicle financials," and that prospective fleet managers must "demonstrate an understanding of the financial component in order to move forward in the process."
Richard Meneghello, a Portland, OR-based labor attorney with Fisher Phillips, said that this approach to translate arbitration "tactics" is a common practice among businesses, particularly when working with contractors, to "minimize the chances of somebody entering an agreement and arrangement without realizing what the implications of them are."
"There's a ton of case law out there that talks about ... how to ensure that it's an arm's-length business transaction and not, for lack of a better term, a company taking advantage of a consumer who doesn't know what they're doing," Meneghello said, noting that organizations will often remove "legalese" from their contracts and detail agreements in "big bold fonts and very easy-to-understand English."
Smart Cities Dive obtained a copy of a Los Angeles fleet manager contract, which does include clear, bolded language throughout its 16 pages. The contract states that Bird retains the title and ownership of all contract vehicles in the program, and that managers are responsible for "maintaining adequate insurance coverage." If for any reason e-scooters become outlawed in a manager's particular market, "Bird bears no liability" for any losses.
While the program contracts vary by market, this one includes a non-disparagement agreement and a "confidentiality" section that requires all fleet managers to hold information regarding Bird's business, pricing and technology in "strict confidence" through the term and for a three-year period following the contract expiration.
Meneghello said these kinds of contract agreements are not so much "red flags" as typical practice for organizations, particularly newer businesses that are ironing out the kinks of a new program.
"I've seen this with especially newer businesses ... that they may want to extend that sort of confidentiality so that as they're trying to work through things and get things right, people aren't turned off by potential negative stories that are out there," Meneghello said.
Feeding into a larger industry trend
The controversy around this program mirrors broader debates regarding the transportation industry's use of gig workers. In California, mobility giants Uber and Lyft successfully pushed the approval of Proposition 22 in early November, allowing the companies to classify app-based drivers as independent contractors despite the state's AB 5 law that requires their reclassification to employees.
The companies rallied behind the controversial proposition to avoid dishing out hundreds of millions of dollars in annual payroll taxes and compensation costs to reclassification — spending more than $200 million along the way to support the measure. In an opinion piece for TechCrunch, Uber software engineer Kurt Nelson opposed Prop. 22, calling it a "multimillion dollar effort to deny these workers their rights."
Due to the nature of scooter-sharing, the micromobility industry has leaned heavily on contract workers for charging and rebalancing tasks — most notably through programs like Bird Flyer or Lime Juicer. The OneZero report touched on these programs, alleging both Lime and Bird cut charger pay "to its lowest point ever" at the end of last year.
Lime said in a statement its payments to U.S. chargers have gone up on average over the last several months.
"Lime regularly makes minor adjustments across a range of business inputs in every market we operate, all with the goal of providing our riders a reliable, affordable and convenient transportation option. We traditionally shift our pricing seasonally, in line with rider demand and the volume of juicer tasks," the company said.
Spin, a leading competitor in the micromobility space, said providing both livable wages and benefits to workers is "simply the right thing to do," both ethically and in terms of safety.
"As the industry matures, so must its practices," a Spin spokesperson said. "By classifying local operations teams as employees, companies can establish reporting structures that ensure issues can be addressed quickly and uniformly. As a transportation operator, it's imperative that there are uniform safety protocols in order to offer the safest ride to consumers."
Classifying contractors as employees can also have direct and ancillary benefits on operations, said Kyla Hanaway-Quinlan, vice president of people & culture at Superpedestrian, in an earlier interview. She said operators are given a "higher degree of control over consistency and reliability" when working with W2 staff, which is "more important than ever, especially at a time with so much economic uncertainty."
If contractors are interested in pursuing more opportunities similar to Bird's fleet manager program, Meneghello advises individuals to recognize that this kind of program is "different than some gig work where you sign on and have no strings attached."
"It would be worth their while to buy an hour or two of time from an attorney to make sure they understand the agreement they're entering into before they enter into it, and understand all of the potential repercussions," he said. "Recognize this for what it is and get legal advice before you sign up for it."