Pandemic security feature on Uber and Lyft exploited to defraud drivers and discriminate against passengers
It wasn’t the first time Charles Hossle had had trouble calling an Uber. As a pretty tough person to miss – the 53-year-old trailing nun is 6’4 ”, and that’s without the heels or the habit – he’s once had a driver that accelerates the second he sees who he is. would pick up.
But everything had looked pretty normal on his May 8 hike in San Francisco. Hossle, who plays Sister Diana Fyre, was returning home after an event with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the troop of drag nuns he belongs to. “A few hours later, I received an email from Uber saying my driver reported me for not wearing a mask,” Hossle told BuzzFeed News. “But if you know drag queens, you know we don’t do not take selfies.
Hossle had actually taken a selfie on the ride, which showed him wearing a pale, silver mask that covered him from his chin to below his eyes. He put on the mask before getting in the car and didn’t take it off until he got home, he said.
He wondered if it had been falsely reported due to anti-LGBTQ biases, as is often the case in the drag community. In 2017, one of Hossle’s dragging sisters in San Francisco was refused a ride when their Lyft driver saw what they were wearing. A few months later, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Aja was kicked out of a Lyft after kissing their boyfriend.
Although he disputed the claim with an Uber rep, Hossle had to take a selfie to verify he was masked before his next ride – not a major inconvenience, but a frustrating resolution to what he thinks. likely to be an incident rooted in discrimination.
“I don’t know – was it the mask? Hossle said. “Or was it the gorgeous eyelashes and legs?” “
Implementing safety precautions on ridesharing apps has been key to protecting passengers and drivers throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Uber and Lyft continue to demand masks, regardless of vaccination status, and allow both parties to report to each other if either party fails to comply. But while this feature is intended – and arguably most often used – to simply flag those who refuse to wear masks, some people abuse it, making false claims of no mask, both to discriminate against passengers and to deceive. drivers on tariffs.
“It’s one of those things where it happens once or twice, you might think it’s a coincidence,” said Corey, 29, who is black and lives in south Chicago. “But around the fifth or sixth time, or even the second time in a day or a week, you start to realize.” (Corey requested, like others in this story, that their last name not be used for privacy purposes.)
People of color, as well as LGBTQ people and passengers with disabilities, have long faced issues of discrimination when it comes to hailing a cab, often watching cab after taxi go straight past without anyone stopping. to take them. Ridesharing apps were once seen as a possible solution to this experiment, as cars are automatically summoned – but research has shown they’re not necessarily a great equalizer, with discrimination still being a rampant problem. A 2016 study found that black passengers wait up to 35% longer for their Uber or Lyft than white passengers, and “the cancellation rate for African-American-sounding names was more than twice as frequent than for white sounding names “.
As the ride-hailing industry has adapted to the pandemic, discrimination has also adapted. Ezekiel “Eze” Jackson, a 40-year-old man in Baltimore, said he was falsely reported to have gone maskless three times on Lyft – twice before even entering the car, which caused him to made him think that drivers just didn’t want to drive a black man. “I sometimes get Lyft drivers who I can tell by their behavior that they’re not happy that I’m black, but what are you going to do? ” he said.
Corey, the Chicago resident, said they lost track of how many times they had been falsely flagged for not wearing a mask, and their friends and colleagues living in the predominantly black neighborhood had experienced the same. thing. “Especially now, access to transportation is a big issue,” Corey said. “And having access to the most popular rideshare service withdrawn due to misrepresentation is concerning – both to me and to people worse off than me. “
Corey is exceptionally cautious when it comes to masks, so the frequency of these false reports is daunting. But at the same time, Corey is aware of the dangers Uber and Lyft drivers have faced – especially during a pandemic in which they have been kept at bay from spitting up countless strangers, including those who have been exposed or infected with COVID-19. And because these drivers are treated as independent contractors instead of employees, their multi-billion dollar companies do not provide them with health insurance.
Corey wants these passenger reports to be taken seriously when they’re true, but it can be difficult to pinpoint when it’s one person’s word against the other. “It’s important for the driver’s safety that this option is there because there are people who will just jump in the car without a mask,” Corey said.
Representatives from Lyft and Uber said companies have processes in place to identify fraudulent claims, but declined to further elaborate on the number of complaints about the masks they receive and how they are dealt with. ‘investigation. However, a Lyft spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that they take complaints about fake masks seriously. “While we encourage drivers and drivers to refuse to accept or cancel rides if they feel unsafe, we also take action if we believe a driver or driver is fraudulently using the policy. cancellation without penalty, ”the Lyft spokesperson said.
An Uber representative also said his company does not tolerate discrimination. “The vast majority of trips have not resulted in any reported mask issues,” the Uber spokesperson said. “However, if we become aware of an incident involving discrimination, we will investigate and take appropriate action, including removing access to Uber.”
Many Uber and Lyft drivers live in constant fear of getting kicked out of the app. Drivers who spoke to BuzzFeed News said companies have a reputation for siding with customers rather than workers when complaints do arise, and that not getting a top-notch driver rating is enough to lose. your source of income; According to leaked documents obtained by Business Insider in 2015, Uber drivers whose ratings slip below an average of 4.6 may be disabled.
But now, it’s a fate that even top-rated drivers need to worry about. In Facebook groups and Reddit forums, many rideshare drivers have said they have been falsely reported to have gone maskless, with many claiming this has happened to them multiple times. Some simply receive a warning and are temporarily required to take a selfie showing their mask before picking up passengers, but others have been suspended or permanently disabled as a result.
“I was an essential worker,” Lisa Ditalia, a now deactivated Uber driver, told BuzzFeed News. “And then I got slapped in the face when all was done and said.”
Ditalia, a 61-year-old woman from Lehigh Valley, PA, started driving for Uber in 2014. She took great pride in the service she provided and even achieved the prestigious “diamond” status awarded only to top-rated drivers. . But on May 12, she was suddenly kicked out of Uber, her only source of income.
It was the lack of transparency that Ditalia found most frustrating. She contacted Uber support and was told there had been “multiple reports” that she had violated mask guidelines, but they could not tell her how much or when, or provide further details. It came as a shock to her as she always wore her mask while driving, she said. Her only guess is that she may have momentarily pulled him aside for a sip of water during one of his long days on the road. Her deactivation was final and she could not appeal.
“I have no recourse as a driver for any of these complaints,” Ditalia said.
Dishonest complaints from passengers trying to win free rides are not a totally new problem facing ride-sharing service drivers. “These kind of biker scams have been around since day one,” said Harry Campbell, a former Uber and Lyft driver who now runs the popular blog The Rideshare Guy. “Frankly, this works very well often, because for the company it is usually cheaper and easier for them to just reimburse for a ride than it is to investigate these types of situations,” he said. -she says “.”
This has long been the experience of Derek, a DC-based Lyft pilot. “It happens a lot,” he said. “They’ll say someone smelled of alcohol or was speeding and all that, but I have a dashcam so it protects me.”
Knowing the precarious nature of his job, Derek said he follows safety protocols and always wears a mask to avoid such complaints. But on three occasions he was still reported and was suspended for a few hours each time. He estimates he probably missed out on about $ 100 in winnings for each of those suspensions. “It’s upsetting, because you’re following the guidelines and trying to make money,” Derek said.
Even with temperatures now in the 90s and humid in DC, Derek keeps his mask and windows down, only closing them and turning on the air conditioning if a passenger specifically requests it. Still, he feels on edge, painfully aware that the next suspension or worse could come at any time if someone lies about his mask.
“When you drive for these rideshare companies, they can deactivate your account for no reason,” he said. “It’s not even just the false reporting – you don’t know what’s going to happen overnight.”