Uber hears drivers’ demands, ships out masks for coronavirus protection – CNET

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Uber says it's shipping millions of masks to its drivers and delivery workers.

Angela Lang/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Two weeks ago, a New York-based drivers group sent a letter to Uber with a demand: give drivers sanitizing equipment and face masks. The letter was sent after an Uber driver became the first known gig worker to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

"We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Queens Uber driver Anil Subba who contracted the coronavirus after transporting a sick rider home from the airport," wrote the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 200,000 drivers in the tri-state area. "To prevent further tragedy, those drivers who continue to work transporting essential personnel are in need."

The group never got a response.

But last week, Uber announced it was beginning to ship out one-quart bottles of disinfectant spray to some drivers for cleaning their cars. And, on Thursday, the company announced it's distributing millions of face masks to its workers.

"Drivers and delivery people are providing essential services around the world, from helping essential workers get around to delivering meals to people staying home," Gus Fuldner, Uber's vice president of safety and insurance, wrote in a blog post. "As they help our communities through this crisis, helping them stay safe is our priority."

Gig workers have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 1.5 million people and killed nearly 95,000 worldwide. Many drivers say they've been hit hard seeing their earnings plummet or by getting infected with the virus. While Uber has promised to give two weeks paid leave to sick workers, CNET found that the assistance has been difficult to come by.

Workers for other gig economy companies have also come up against roadblocks getting sick leave and protective gear. Some of them, like Instacart and Amazon shoppers, have staged strikes demanding more help. Part of the problem is that store shelves have emptied during the coronavirus outbreak and this safety gear is now in short supply.

The masks that Uber is distributing aren't N-95 respirators that healthcare workers need, but rather ear-loop face masks coming from manufacturers in China. An Uber spokesman told CNET that the company shipped its first order of about 500,000 masks to drivers in New York City on Tuesday and it's receiving a shipment of nearly 500,000 more to send to drivers in other hard-hit US cities shortly. 

Over the next few weeks, the company said it will deliver tens of millions of additional masks to other cities and regions around the world.

Moira Muntz, a spokeswoman from the Independent Drivers Guild, said drivers in the coalition have yet to receive any of the disinfectant sprays or masks from Uber.

"Despite early promises of providing drivers with cleaning supplies, those never materialized," Muntz said. 

The Uber spokesman told CNET that the masks destined for New York drivers are currently in the mail and in some cases will be automatically sent to drivers with the disinfectant spray.

The first batch of the disinfectant spray was limited and so Uber said it had to prioritize the spray for the most active drivers in the worst hit cities. Those selected drivers are able to place an order through the Uber app and the company said it'd send the spray to their homes for free.

For the masks, the Uber spokesman said the process will be the same.

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Instacart workers strike amid COVID-19 fears, call company response a ‘sick joke’ – CNET

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Deemed "essential" workers, Instacart shoppers continue to deliver groceries during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Instacart workers are holding a strike across the US on Monday to demand more protections from the company. The move comes as a growing number of grocery delivery workers for Instacart say they're getting sick with COVID-19 symptoms, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. They say the company hasn't done enough to safeguard them against the illness.

"We are staging an emergency walk off because we had no other choice -- working conditions had become dire," said Sarah Clarke, an organizer for the nonprofit Gig Workers Collective, which helped plan Monday's strike. "Instacart had spent the past three weeks ignoring Instacart workers' pleas for basic protection during this pandemic."

Gig workers, like Instacart shoppers and Uber and Lyft drivers, have been on the front lines during the coronavirus outbreak. They shop and deliver food to those who've been quarantined and often take sick people to hospitals. Several US states have recognized their importance, deeming their labor "essential," meaning they can continue to work as the virus spreads.

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Because gig workers are classified as independent contractors, rather than employees, they don't qualify for company health insurance, sick leave, family leave, disability or workers compensation. Instacart, and other gig economy companies, have offered workers two weeks sick leave if they get COVID-19 or are mandated to quarantine.

"Our team has had an unwavering commitment to prioritize the health and safety of the entire Instacart community," Nilam Ganenthiran, Instacart's president, said in a statement on Sunday. "We've been evaluating the COVID-19 crisis minute by minute to provide real-time support for Instacart shoppers and customers throughout North America."

But many workers say that pay is hard to come by. An Instacart shopper near Portland, Oregon, told CNET last week that after coming down with COVID-19 symptoms and submitting a doctor's letter to the company, the shopper still couldn't get sick pay from Instacart.

Hundreds of gig workers across the country have said they fear working because they're vulnerable to the coronavirus, which as of Monday has infected more than 770,000 people and killed nearly 37,000 worldwide. Other workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been put under quarantine.

Many Instacart shoppers say that during this pandemic, work for them has become a life or death matter.

"I am striking because I have severe asthma. I am at a very high risk of dying if I catch this virus," one Instacart shopper said. "My four boys and husband need me alive, so I strike."

The strike

For the strike, Instacart workers had five demands of the company: provide free hand sanitizer; add $5 per order for "hazard pay;" change the default in-app tip amount from 5% to 10%; pay for two weeks sick leave to anyone with a doctor's note requiring self-quarantine, including those vulnerable to the virus; and extend the original sick pay deadline past April 8.

"Health professionals are literally saying going to the grocery store is a medium risk activity and to spend as little time there as possible," one Instacart shopper said. "And we are expected to do orders and get paid just as we always have."

Days before the strike, Instacart agreed to some of the demands. The company said it will work with a third-party manufacturer to develop its own hand sanitizer and supply it for free to workers starting this week. It'll also extend the sick pay deadline to May 8. As far as the default tipping, it will now let customers set their own tipping percentage in the app rather than use the company's.

But Gig Workers Collective called Instacart's response a "sick joke."

"Aside from simply not being enough, this is insulting for a number of reasons," the group wrote in a blog post on Sunday, noting that neither the hazard pay nor vulnerable workers were addressed by the company. "The strike is still on."

The worker protest has gathered support from a number of politicians, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. On Sunday, the Democratic presidential candidate tweeted, "Instacart was last valued at nearly $8 billion. A company of this size should not be forcing its workers to put themselves -- and us all -- at risk."

Instacart doesn't appear to be fazed, however. Over the past month, business has been better than ever, the company said. It currently operates in 5,500 cities in the US and Canada. And Instacart announced last week that it was recruiting another 300,000 shoppers over the next three months to keep up with customer demand.

"We respect the rights of shoppers to provide us feedback and voice their concerns," an Instacart spokeswoman said Monday. But "as it relates to today's actions, we've seen absolutely no impact to Instacart's operations."

To that, Gig Workers Collective ended the day with its own retort. 

"Instead of focusing its attention on addressing the ongoing health and safety crisis," the group wrote in a blog post. "Instacart has chosen to use its time discrediting the significance, reach, and impact of our walk off."

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Gig workers with COVID-19 symptoms say it’s hard to get sick leave from Uber, Lyft, Instacart – CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

On a Monday morning two weeks ago, a San Francisco Uber driver woke up feeling sick. He had a persistent dry cough and a scratchy chest, was short of breath and wheezed when he breathed deeply. He knew these were possible symptoms for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, so he retraced his past few trips. A couple of alarming interactions came to mind, including one passenger who coughed up blood and another who admitted he'd been infected.

San Francisco hadn't yet become a ghost town with most businesses shuttered and residents hunkering at home under a mandatory "shelter in place" order. People were still out and about. Beauty salons, movie theaters, bars and most corporate offices still teemed with people. The number of coronavirus cases in the city were still scant.

Nevertheless, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, Postmates and other companies had issued advice to their gig workers on avoiding the virus, which as of Tuesday evening had infected nearly 425,000 people and killed nearly 20,000 worldwide. At that time, the companies said they'd assist workers with two weeks of lost income if they were diagnosed with COVID-19. They also told their drivers and delivery people to "wipe down surfaces," "practice good hygiene" and "stay home" if they felt sick.

Although that meant not earning any money and dipping into his savings, the 60-year-old San Francisco driver, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, heeded that warning.

"I did exactly what Uber said to do," the driver said on a phone call that was frequently interrupted by coughing fits. "But Uber is not protecting us."

Gig workers have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic. They drove travelers coming from around the world before the extent of the crisis was understood. And now, they shop and deliver food to those who've been quarantined and often take sick people to hospitals. California, along with several other states, has recognized gig workers' importance, deeming their labor "essential" -- meaning they can continue to work even as the virus spreads.

Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates wouldn't say how many of their workers have been infected with COVID-19, when contacted by CNET. But two Uber drivers were exposed to a passenger thought to have COVID-19 in Mexico City. Another driver was exposed in London after taking an infected rider to the hospital. And in Queens, New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio confirmed a male Uber driver in his 30s was hospitalized after testing positive for the virus. On Tuesday, another Queens Uber driver, in his 40s, became the first known gig worker to die from COVID-19.

CNET spoke to three Uber drivers, a Lyft driver and an Instacart shopper who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms of the pneumonia-like illness. All say they've struggled to get help from the companies.

While these stories don't necessarily represent the plight of all gig workers, they offer a window into their vulnerable situation, further exacerbated by this pandemic. Because gig workers are classified as independent contractors, they lack the same benefits as employees. Drivers and delivery people for these services don't have company health insurance, sick leave, family leave, disability or workers compensation. They don't qualify for unemployment. And they haven't been provided protective gear since the outbreak erupted.

On top of that, depending where people live, getting a COVID-19 test can be extremely difficult.

"A crisis like this exposes every weak spot in our safety net," said Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit bioethics think tank, who was the lead author on ethical guidelines in responding to COVID-19. "We are getting a crash course in the vulnerability of the low wage, poorly protected work force -- the gig workforce."

Sick leave

After getting sick, the San Francisco driver asked for Uber's help. He was bedridden, received doctor's orders to self-quarantine and had been tested for COVID-19. For eight days, however, Uber gave him the runaround.

He'd told the ride-hailing company that he came in contact with two passengers he believed might have been infected with the coronavirus. The first incident happened on the Saturday morning before he got sick as he was driving Uber Pool, the company's carpool service that has since been shuttered because of the coronavirus. He picked up a woman, then a couple of miles later picked up a man who said he just got back from Taiwan.

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Gig workers have been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

James Martin/CNET

"I have COVID-19," the man told them.  

The driver dropped off the passengers, told the woman to call her doctor and proceeded to deep clean his car by wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant wipes.

The next day the driver got back out on the road. One of the first riders he picked up had punched in a hospital as the destination.

"We're halfway through the trip and he seems out of it," the driver said. "He starts to cough and says, 'We're going to the hospital because I'm coughing up blood.'"

Coughing up blood is one of the rarer symptoms of COVID-19. The passenger told the driver he thought he had the virus.

"I don't know for a fact if either of these people have COVID-19. I don't know if I have it," the driver said. But, "after that day, that Sunday, I didn't drive anymore."

On March 15, Uber expanded its coronavirus sick leave policy to say those workers "placed in a quarantine" by a public health authority or licensed doctor could also get the two-week assistance while their accounts were on hold. All of the other companies followed suit.

"We have a team dedicated around the clock to help provide support to drivers," an Uber spokeswoman said in an email. On its driver support page, Uber says, "We will work speedily to review and confirm all submitted documentation so that anyone who is eligible receives their assistance as soon as possible."

While most gig workers now only need a doctor's letter to receive the sick pay, CNET spoke to one driver who was still required to provide a positive COVID-19 test to get help. And in other situations, like with the San Francisco driver, it's taken several days to get financial compensation.

The runaround

The San Francisco Uber driver contacted his doctor and his local Santa Clara County health department shortly after he started developing symptoms. Both recommended he get tested at a drive-through clinic, which was set up in a nearby parking lot.

As he navigated his car through orange parking cones and was told to keep his windows rolled up, he started to panic.

"Everybody was wearing a mask," he said. "It looked like a war zone."

After more than an hour, he was escorted into an exam room. A doctor wearing a mask and gown gave him a chest examination and then stuck one swab into the back of his throat and another up his nose. The driver was told his test results would be available on an online portal once they were finalized. As of this writing, they haven't been posted.

At the same time the driver was trying to get medical assistance, he was battling Uber over financial assistance.

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Several drive-through COVID-19 testing facilities have been set up in parking lots across California.

Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images

Uber says it's helping drivers based on how much they've earned over the past six months. For example, in San Francisco, if a driver made an average of $28 per day, they'd get $400 to cover two weeks of earnings. If they made an average of $121 per day, they'd get $1,700.

The San Francisco Uber driver logged onto the company's COVID-19 portal, called Law Enforcement and Public Health Response or LERT, and found the only way he could upload his doctor's letter was by agreeing to what he called "onerous conditions," which included letting Uber collect personal data and acknowledging the transaction wouldn't change his status as an independent contractor.

Uncomfortable with the request, the driver instead took to Twitter. He documented his experience in a thread of 24 tweets directed at Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Chief Legal Officer Tony West. He also sent the letter through Uber's normal driver support system.

Eight days after the whole affair started, $2,108 appeared in his account.

A part-time Lyft driver based in Atlanta had a similar experience. The 37-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, developed some of the known symptoms of COVID-19 last Saturday night. Fatigue, fever, headache and diarrhea. He got a doctor's letter requiring him to self-quarantine and sent it to Lyft.

"When will someone contact me?" he asked the support team, according to screenshots seen by CNET. "Should I keep driving until someone responds?"

The reply surprised him.

"Right now, we don't have a time frame," Lyft's team wrote back. "If you decide to drive, you can."

The driver sent Lyft another support request on Sunday morning with a screenshot of this interaction. By Monday afternoon, Lyft put the drivers account on hold and deposited the sick pay into his account.

A Lyft spokeswoman said the company has been clear in telling workers not to drive if they are sick. She declined to comment on this specific incident but said the company tweeted about the situation on Monday, saying it "reached out to the driver to apologize for the miscommunication."

Gig workers aren't free from headaches, even when they do get through to the companies. After having trouble breathing, Jon Hoheisel, a 26-year-old full-time Uber driver based in Castro Valley, California, was ordered by his doctor to take a test and self-quarantine at home.

"I was telling myself the entire time, 'You're OK. It's probably the flu,'" Hoheisel said. "But then I got the test results."

He too had trouble getting a response from Uber. It was only after tweeting to Andrew Macdonald, Uber's senior vice president of rides, that something happened. Macdonald direct-messaged Hoheisel, apologized and said he'd prioritize Hoheisel's case. On March 18, three days later, $600 was deposited into Hoheisel's account.

Still, something didn't seem right. Hoheisel went over his last six months of work and calculated that he should've been paid $1,600. Frustrated, Hoheisel got back on Twitter. A day later, the company deposited another $1,000 into his account. The following day, he learned he tested positive for COVID-19.

Uber declined to comment on Macdonald's interaction with Hoheisel.

"The whole process was kind of shady… It took a lot of pulling teeth," Hoheisel said. "I'm just relieved that I got my money."

But some gig workers haven't been so lucky.

No tests

With sirens blaring, an ambulance sped into a Portland, Oregon, suburb this past Saturday night after getting a 911 call of someone having a life-threatening asthma attack. The paramedics arrived at the house of an Instacart shopper and immediately administered an epinephrine shot. The shopper, who told CNET about this incident, is gender-nonconforming and wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of stigma. 

This episode was the latest in a sequence of events that had begun a week earlier.

Up until March 14, the 38-year-old Portland Instacart shopper had been busy "taking batches" -- Instacart parlance for making deliveries -- bringing customers groceries and supplies as the coronavirus spread. On Sunday, March 15, the shopper developed a high fever, cough and severe shortness of breath.

"I was overworked and overstressed, so I thought it was that," the shopper said.

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Panicked residents have emptied grocery store shelves across the US as shelter-in-place orders took place.

Shara Tibken/CNET

The shopper called the doctor, who said the symptoms sounded like COVID-19. But the doctor warned not to go to the hospital and get tested unless the symptoms were deadly. Instead, the doctor wrote a letter requiring a 14-day self-quarantine.

Testing for COVID-19 varies tremendously across the US. In some counties, it's nearly impossible to get the nasopharyngeal swab. Oftentimes, even when testing is available, it's only given to the direly ill.

As the Instacart shopper was whisked to the local hospital on Saturday, doctors administered tests for the flu and pneumonia, which came up negative. But the shopper still wasn't given a COVID-19 test.

The whole situation has been a massive financial burden for the Instacart shopper and their family.

It took the shopper messaging the company, sending the doctor's letter and then calling just to get a response, which came two days later. Instacart's support team said the letter wasn't enough to get financial assistance, according to screenshots seen by CNET. Instead, the doctor would have to fill out an Instacart form.

Instacart declined to comment on this shopper's case. The company said that if a shopper doesn't supply one of the required documents or there's missing information, it will let them know what's needed to get the sick pay approval.

"These gig companies are just saying this to stay safe and provide a good public image. They are making the burden of truth so impossible to achieve," the shopper said. "If you have someone who's a single parent and literally living day-to-day, what are they to do? There's nothing to protect them from financial catastrophe."

Steve Gregg, a 51-year-old full-time Uber driver in Antioch, California, also hasn't been able to get tested for COVID-19. He started developing the typical symptoms on March 15. As in the case of the Instacart shopper, his doctor wrote him a letter telling him to self-quarantine but said he couldn't get tested unless he exhibited severe symptoms.

"I'm just scared," Gregg said over the phone, choking back tears. "And I have no recourse."

Gregg doesn't have health insurance and is considered vulnerable to the virus because he has high blood pressure and is pre-diabetic. Since his COVID-19 symptoms came on, he's had three panic attacks.

When he sent his doctor's letter to Uber on March 16, the company got back to him in 24 hours. But, it said, he needed to get a test in order to receive sick pay.

"Have you received confirmation of this diagnosis from a medical professional," Uber wrote in a message to Gregg, seen by CNET. "In order to be eligible for financial assistance, we will need documentation of your diagnosis from a licensed medical provider."

This message was sent to Gregg two days after Uber announced it stopped requiring a positive COVID-19 test to get paid leave.

"Requiring a positive test result in order to pay out sick pay is not practical and is actually dangerous," said Moira Muntz, spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 200,000 drivers in the tri-state area. The guild was instrumental in pushing gig economy companies to expand their policies and stop requiring a positive COVID-19 test.

"We are happy that Uber and Lyft have now agreed to provide sick pay to any driver with a doctor's note to self-isolate," Muntz added. "But they urgently need to raise awareness of this policy and make the process easier or we will have sick and at-risk drivers continuing to work."

Catch-22

Over the past few days as the number of coronavirus cases swelled, gig workers have used Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to post comments that they're driving, even if they feel sick. The workers often say they don't have a choice because they have bills to pay and can't get help from the companies.

Berlinger from the Hastings Center said these workers are in a Catch 22 that ends up being dangerous for everyone.

"This should be a wakeup call," Berlinger said. "It's a reminder of how we're all connected."

As for the San Francisco Uber driver, he's still fatigued and coughing two weeks after he first felt sick. He's relieved that Uber came through with his paid leave but said the gig economy companies need to do more to protect workers.

If the companies temporarily deactivate a worker because they may have COVID-19, he said, that should be enough to trigger the 14-day paid leave. He said Uber and Lyft should also send messages to all passengers warning them that if they're having COVID-19 symptoms, not to use their apps to get to the hospital or urgent care.

"Uber drivers are not medical transport," he said. "Drivers do not have the training or [personal protective equipment] to protect ourselves."

The driver took a deep, labored breath and sighed.

"The thing is," he said, "nobody wanted this to happen."

Originally published March 25, 2020, 5 a.m. PT.

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Uber CEO to Trump: Include gig workers in coronavirus relief package – CNET

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Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is asking the federal government to do more to help drivers.

James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

As the novel coronavirus is increasingly impacting Uber drivers' livelihoods and their ability to get enough rides to make money, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is asking President Donald Trump for help. On Monday, he sent a letter to the White House and to legislative leaders from both parties asking that gig workers be included in the government economic stimulus package.

"I respectfully and urgently request that the economic stimulus you are considering, along with any other future legislative measures in response to COVID-19, include protections and benefits for independent workers, not just employees," Khosrowshahi wrote. "My goal in writing to you is not to ask for a bailout for Uber, but rather for support for the independent workers on our platform and, once we move past the immediate crisis, the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward."

Along with including independent contractors in the stimulus package, Khosrowshahi also suggested updating labor laws to include a new class of worker he called the "third way." He said this new category could "remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers."

This is a marked change for the company. Uber and its gig economy cohorts have spent years fighting to keep their workers classified as independent contractors, which means the companies don't have to pay for employee benefits like health care, overtime and sick leave. A change in the classification of drivers would mean millions of dollars in added costs for the companies.

Asked about Khosrowshahi's letter, the White House said it intends to assist all Americans in need.

"As President Trump has said, we are going to ensure that we take care of all Americans, including affected industries and small businesses," said Judson Deere, White House deputy press secretary.

While advocating for the "third way," Khosrowshahi still warned against making drivers employees.

″Reclassifying these workers as employees could result in the provision of more social protections, but the reality of employment means it would eliminate a key value proposition of this type of work," Khosrowshahi wrote. "Instead of true flexibility -- where workers need not report at a certain time or place, can start or stop working at the tap of a button and can work on multiple platforms simultaneously -- driving or delivering would come to resemble the kind of shift-based work that many people cannot fit into their lives."

As the coronavirus pandemic roils the labor market and health care industry, public health authorities are saying there needs to be a better safety net for vulnerable workers, such as gig workers. Uber and Lyft drivers, along with delivery people for Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates, have been demanding that the companies do more to protect them.

Last week, thousands of drivers signed a petition urging Uber and Lyft to comply with Assembly Bill 5, a California law that went into effect on Jan. 1 and could require the companies to classify their drivers as employees

Uber and Lyft announced expanded "paid leave" policies for drivers infected with the coronavirus last week. Under the policies, if a driver gets diagnosed with the resulting disease, COVID-19, or is put in quarantine by a recognized public health authority, the companies will provide them with financial assistance for up to 14 days. 

To prevent the spread of the disease, both Uber and Lyft also temporarily suspended their shared-rides feature in the US and Canada.

Over the weekend, Khosrowshahi spoke with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other members of Congress from both parties about added assistance for gig workers, according to an Uber spokesman. The CEO is also reaching out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

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Uber drivers are losing their jobs over fake DUI complaints – CNET

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Some Uber drivers say passengers are making false accusations to score free rides. 

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It was a day like any other for Shannon Powell. In early February, he was driving for Uber in Baltimore like he had been for the last three and a half years. As he worked through the afternoon, picking up and dropping off passengers, he sipped on a Coca Cola and made small talk.

Then, at around 5pm, Uber pinged him and everything changed. He had a stellar 4.88 rating and more than 14,000 trips under his belt, but he hadn't quite realized that driving full-time for the ride-hailing company meant his entire livelihood could be destroyed by a few comments from riders.

In the message, Uber said a passenger claimed Powell "may have been driving under the influence while using the app," according to screenshots seen by CNET. The company then deactivated his account.

"This was my main source of income," said Powell, who has since been evicted from his home because he couldn't pay the bills. "I really have no other options."

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The incident represents an unintended consequence of a feature ride-hailing companies put in place to ensure the safety of their passengers. Both Uber and Lyft boast "zero tolerance" policies for drivers who use drugs or alcohol while on the apps. The companies encourage riders who "suspect that a driver is under the influence" to first contact 911 and then the ride-hailing services' support teams. In certain situations, when Uber receives a passenger complaint and concludes the ride was unprofessional, it'll refund the trip.

Some drivers say, however, passengers are abusing the feature, using false complaints about everything from drug use to a driver's attitude to get free rides. That, in turn, can have devastating consequences. 

"While passengers may save a few dollars, drivers face temporary or permanent deactivation," said Bryant Greening, an attorney who represents riders and drivers in accident and injury claims for Chicago-based firm LegalRideshare. He noted that he gets calls from Uber and Lyft drivers about false accusations daily. "They lose the ability to work, earn money and provide for their families, all because a passenger scammed the system."

An Uber spokeswoman said the company has a specialized team dedicated to investigating all safety complaints. Team representatives speak to both riders and drivers and then take the action they deem appropriate, she said, including deactivations.

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Before being deactivated, Shannon Powell had a stellar record as an Uber driver.

Shannon Powell

"Each case is individually handled," the spokeswoman said. "We have these policies and our support team does its due diligence in looking into these cases with safety top of mind."

The strict stance is in accordance with many states' zero tolerance laws -- something Uber got into trouble for in 2018. California fined the company $750,000 that year for reportedly not investigating all of its rider complaints about drunk drivers.

Lyft has a similar protocol to Uber, but says it additionally analyzes riders' previous interactions with the company to ensure there are no trends of misleading or false reports.

"Lyft's community guidelines prohibit fraudulent activity of any kind," a Lyft spokesman said. "Such behavior can and does lead to a permanent ban from the platform."

With Uber, drivers say the company often sides with the rider. CNET spoke to five drivers who said their accounts were deactivated for things they say they didn't do. Three were accused of DUIs, one was said to have smoked marijuana while driving and another was blamed for getting in a car accident that never actually happened. Twitter, Reddit and Facebook groups are filled with hundreds of comments from angry drivers who say they've experienced similar scenarios.

In some of these instances, Uber only temporarily shutters the driver's account while it investigates the claim. But in other situations, like Powell's, the deactivation is permanent.

Powell swears he was sober. After he got the message from Uber that afternoon and talked to a company representative, he immediately went to an urgent care center and paid out-of-pocket to get a toxicology test. A technician at the center tested Powell's saliva and performed a BAT, basic abilities test, for alcohol. The report, which Powell shared with CNET, came back negative.

"I showed proof that I wasn't intoxicated or had anything in my system," Powell said. "This report should have counted."

Unconfirmed reports

James Morran had a similar experience one night in mid-December. He'd been a full-time Uber driver in Los Angeles for more than three years, boasted a 4.92 rating and had given nearly 7,000 rides. Typically, Morran doesn't drive at night, but he was trying to earn extra money for the holidays.

As he drove through the evening, nothing of note happened, he says. None of his passengers mentioned anything unusual to him.

The next morning, Morran woke to a message from Uber that read, "We received a report from one of your riders stating you appeared to be under the influence during a trip," according to screenshots seen by CNET.

Morran was perplexed. He said he definitely wasn't drinking alcohol. The only thing he could think of was that maybe a rider confused the smell of the medicine he takes for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which requires an inhaler and extra strong cough drops, for alcohol. But he had no way to prove this.

"If they would've called me right when the event happened, I would've gone to take a blood test," Morran said. "The thing that gets me is that I'm being deactivated because of an unconfirmed report."

Drivers say it's often unclear why they get deactivated when the rider's complaint is either unconfirmed or the driver can prove sobriety with a toxicology report.

Morran exchanged messages with Uber several times that day. At one point, Uber said, "We know that there are riders who exhibit inappropriate behavior and make false feedback," according to screenshots seen by CNET. However, the company still decided to permanently deactivate his account since he had "additional unconfirmed reports describing driving under the influence."

Powell received a nearly identical message from Uber after going back-and-forth with the company. Both drivers acknowledge getting other complaints, but say those situations also involved false accusations that were cleared up afterwards.

Uber's actions keep in line with California law. Two years ago, the state's Public Utilities Commission fined Uber after investigators looked into the ride-hailing company's handling of more than 2,000 customer complaints of intoxicated drivers from August 2014 to August 2015. They found Uber reportedly failed to investigate more than 100 of those complaints, which violated California's zero-tolerance policy.

At the time, an Uber spokeswoman told CNBC that the company had "significantly improved its processes since then." She also cited Uber's community guidelines, which said, "Uber may also deactivate the account of any driver who receives several unconfirmed complaints of drug or alcohol use." 

Uber has since removed that language from its guidelines.

Dealing with it

One way some drivers are dealing with bogus complaints is by installing dashcams in their cars, which they can use as proof of their innocence.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, an Uber driver told ABC that his account was deactivated because of a reportedly fake DUI complaint. So, he handed over his dashcam footage. Apparently, the camera recorded the rider bragging about the free rides he gets from such accusations. Uber reinstated the driver after reviewing the footage. 

While Uber says it talks to both sides, Greening, the lawyer, said it needs to do a better job of providing due process to all parties involved -- rather than usually giving the benefit of the doubt to riders. And, if it's proven a rider made a false report, then they too should get dings on their account.

"Certainly, if a driver is intoxicated, incompetent or offensive, that driver must be reprimanded and/or expelled," Greening said. "However, in the same vein, there must be repercussions for passengers who make false claims, up to and including permanent deactivation and fees used to make the accused driver financially whole."

As for Powell, he's now living out of his Nissan Sentra and doing deliveries for Postmates and DoorDash. He tried everything to start driving for Uber again, since he can earn at least three times as much money.

He reached out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Maryland Bar Association and even President Donald Trump. The only one he heard back from was the White House on behalf of the president. In an email, a representative said, "this matter is a State and local issue" and told Powell to contact the officials where he lives. So, he did that too.

"From what I was told… companies such as Uber and Lyft have the right to let you go at any time," Powell said. "I guess it's a done deal."

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