March 10, 2020 / 10:24 AM / in 21 days

Uber's challenge to balance driver safety with customer privacy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Margaret Bordelon can still feel the hands of the drunk man who tried to pull her in for a kiss at the end of his Uber ride last September in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Margaret Bordelon, a driver for Uber, looks out her car window at the location where a passenger sexually harassed her after a ride in Lafayette, Louisiana, U.S. February 16, 2020. Picture taken February 16, 2020. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

An Uber driver for only a few months, Bordelon, 45, finally convinced the customer to let her go. Since he booked the ride through a friend, she did not know his name.

After reporting the incident by phone to Uber the same night, a company representative told her that she would no longer be paired with the account holder. Beyond that, there was little else she could do for protection.  

“When I asked Uber what it was going to do to protect me and other women going forward, I received no response,” Bordelon recalled.

Uber reiterated the message to her in writing a day later, saying that any behavior involving violence, sexual misconduct, or illegal activity “can result in the immediate loss of access to the app” for the customer.

Uber declined to address how it responded specifically in Bordelon’s case, and 14 other U.S. female drivers Reuters spoke with said Uber never told them what steps the company took after they reported assault or sexual harassment by customers.

“Safety is essential to Uber,” a spokesman said in a statement. “Over the last two years, we’ve launched more (safety) features than in the previous eight.”

The 15 women interviewed by Reuters, contacted through social media support groups, do not represent a comprehensive review of Uber’s response to allegations of acts of violence against drivers. But data published by Uber in December - a first for the industry - showed drivers were the victims in nearly half of about 6,000 reports of sexual assault during Uber rides in the United States in 2017 and 2018.

The interviews and data show how Uber’s efforts to protect customer privacy have sometimes come into conflict with the safety of some of its drivers. The extent of Uber’s responsibility for its drivers’ safety, according to legal experts and court records, is also tied up with the unsettled legal question of whether they are contractors - as the company claims - or employees.

If the drivers were classified as employees, they could unionize to address safety problems, or sue Uber for damages under the U.S. insurance-based system of workers’ compensation, said Pauline Kim, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

For example in New York City, the country’s largest taxi market, the majority of taxi operators are considered employees under the state’s workers’ compensation law, entitled to benefits. Many U.S. states have passed similar laws.

As contractors, U.S. Uber drivers generally have no such guaranteed rights and they cannot claim benefits from the company.

Uber says most of its drivers do not want to be employees, valuing the flexibility of on-demand work. Its business model relies on less-costly contractors and in theory also protects it from legal claims. Drivers suffering an assault can still sue Uber over personal injury claims, but lawyers told Reuters they are reluctant to take those cases over a risk it could cement the drivers’ contractor status before a court.

“While making a claim against Uber is the only feasible way for a sexually assaulted driver to receive compensation for her losses, Uber prevents them from doing so by calling them independent contractors,” said Juli Porto, a lawyer who represents ride-hailing passengers sexually assaulted by drivers.

Of course Uber drivers can still sue their assailant, but private people rarely have the assets to pay for judgments against them and insurance policies generally do not cover criminal acts.

Uber told Reuters that its drivers, as independent contractors, have the right to decline or cancel any trip request, and can end a trip if they feel unsafe.

Recently added safety features include an emergency services button in the app and ways to share trip locations, that should benefit both riders and drivers, Uber told Reuters.

But some drivers said Uber’s efforts to address safety concerns felt one-sided.

“I need to provide my driver’s license, photos of my car, registration, insurance, inspection results and a selfie before I can start driving. But riders do not even need to use their real names,” said Uber driver Melissa Campbell, 48, from Eugene, Oregon.

Passengers signing up must provide a valid credit card, phone number and email address, but Uber does not require them to verify their identity or upload a picture to avoid potential discrimination against them, it says.

Even if the passenger uses their real name, drivers are no longer able to view account details once the trip is completed to protect customer privacy. In written responses to the drivers submitting safety reports, Uber told drivers they can report incidents to the police who can file a request for riders’ personal information on their behalf, messages reviewed by Reuters showed.

In a November report, Uber said it received nearly 22,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement for user account details in 2018 and produced at least some data in 72% of the cases.

In some cases, Uber cited its privacy policies when declining to update drivers on the conclusion of their cases, the women said.

When Bordelon in February asked about the outcome of her case, Uber told her it thoroughly reviewed the report and took the appropriate action with this user’s account, and referred her to a national sexual assault hotline, according to a message seen by Reuters.

Some drivers Reuters spoke with noted that if they had access to a customer’s drop-off location before accepting a gig, they would feel more safe.

With the exception of California, Uber does not offer drivers such information. The company added location details and other features to its California driver app this year after the state passed a law making it harder for “gig economy” companies to classify workers as contractors. Uber said the added information gives drivers more discretion and therefore bolsters its position that they are independent contractors. It said the location information “is not intended to be a safety feature.”

Rejecting ride requests solely to avoid certain neighborhoods, the company said, “violates Uber’s Community Guidelines and, in some cases, state and local laws” against discrimination.

Since September’s incident in Lafayette, Bordelon has halved her hours from around 40 a week and armed herself with a non-lethal taser, permitted under Uber’s terms of use if used defensively.    

“I really loved driving before, but Uber is not going to keep good drivers like me if they continue treating us this way,” Bordelon said.

Editing by Catherine Evans and Edward Tobin

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