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Fired by the algorithm: new report says rideshare drivers face unchecked discrimination

Uber Canada’s head office in Toronto Photo: Taxi News

Unchecked discrimination and secret algorithms fuel deactivation crisis among rideshare drivers, first-time survey finds

The press release below was distributed by the Asian Americans Law Caucus on February 28, 2023:

SAN FRANCISCO – A new report released February 28 by the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Rideshare Drivers United (RDU) analyzing survey responses from 810 California Uber and Lyft drivers exposes how a lack of basic workplace protections and the corporations’ control of their working conditions and pay have fueled a crisis of unfair and arbitrary firings. As part of a workforce that is mostly people of color and immigrants, drivers live in constant fear of being fired by an app, called “deactivation” by the companies. The survey findings come on the heels of a sobering analysis that found Uber and Lyft pay a typical California driver just $6.20/hour and a Federal Trade Commission brief scrutinizing the companies’ “nontransparent” algorithms.

In the report, drivers shared that unfair customer complaints and ratings stemming from unaddressed discrimination, sexual harassment, and violence — especially when enforcing COVID safety precautions — can put their jobs at risk. Upon deactivation, drivers immediately lose access to the app platform with no notice, sending many into unexpected financial crisis. Uber and Lyft drivers shared common experiences of being left in the dark about why they were fired or how to challenge their deactivation. The survey is the first to ask California app-based drivers, including drivers who speak Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish, about their experiences with deactivation, discrimination, and safety.

“I’ve been discriminated against for speaking English with an accent. Most passengers understand me and are respectful, but some people act violently or aggressively because of it. Some have submitted false reports about me,” said Eduardo Romero, who lives in Los Angeles and has driven for Uber and Lyft for five and a half years. “The system is stacked against us. We don’t have basic rights or protections.”

Two-thirds of Uber and Lyft drivers have been deactivated

Despite the corporations’ claims of creating equitable and inclusive workplaces, two-thirds of all surveyed drivers experienced permanent or temporary deactivation, and drivers of color and immigrant drivers were disproportionately impacted. Surveyed drivers — 81% of whom said driving on Uber and Lyft apps was their primary source of income — struggled to make ends meet, including 18% who lost their car and 12% who lost their homes after deactivation.

“We pay for our own gas, to fix our cars, for insurance, tires, and so much more. We shoulder all of these costs to keep corporations like Uber and Lyft running, but they don’t reciprocate that commitment to the essential workers of this industry,” said Mr. Chen, who lives in San Jose and has driven for Uber and Lyft since 2017. “A customer once left their phone in my car. I had to stop my work and drive back to return it, but they filed a false complaint alleging blackmail. Even after offering video from my dashcam to prove that this was wrong, I was deactivated permanently by Lyft. I lost tens of thousands of dollars I invested in a new and larger car for Lyft that I never got back.”

As the report details, a key part of the corporations’ algorithmic control relies on user-generated rating systems that are infected by unchecked customer discrimination and bias. Drivers assert that if their customer rating falls below an unpublished threshold, they can be summarily deactivated. Even if a driver has a history of thousands of rides and near-perfect customer ratings, a single complaint, even if based on unfounded or false customer assertions, can trigger a driver’s deactivation.

Nearly half of all drivers who experienced some form of discrimination due to their identity reported that the customer gave them a low rating. Fifty percent of drivers who reported racial bias or discrimination by a customer said that the customer also filed a complaint against them.

“I’ve been exposed to COVID from passengers who said they were positive and told me after the ride was already in progress. Customers have been racist, they’ve trashed my car, and I’ve been harassed,” said Ms. Mimi, who has been a driver for three years, lives and raises four children in Los Angeles, and is using a pseudonym. “I tried to get Uber to investigate these situations, but they never did. False customer reports about me were taken at face value — and I had no way to share how passenger bias or protecting customers’ and my health could have led to a false complaint. Our isolation makes it easier for Uber and Lyft to evade accountability while we’re risking our livelihoods no matter what we do.”

“Six months after I started driving for Uber, a customer said abusive and xenophobic things to me. The next morning, I was permanently deactivated, and Uber told me there was nothing I could do to get my job back,” said Oakland-based Sam Ahmed, who now drives for Lyft and is using a pseudonym. “I immigrated from Yemen with my wife and two kids. We fled a civil war and devastating famine. To support my family, I now work 50-60 hours a week for Lyft with no health insurance, no benefits. I still experience discrimination and harassment and worry everyday that it will lead to another deactivation.”

Additional key findings from the survey include:

  • 69% of drivers of color experienced some form of deactivation, compared to 57% of drivers who identify as white
  • 86% of drivers who do not speak English and 78% of those with limited English proficiency reported experiencing some form of deactivation, compared to 61% of drivers who are fluent in English
  • 30% of deactivated drivers were not given any explanation or reason why Uber or Lyft deactivated them
  • 43% of surveyed drivers reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job
  • One in four drivers received a low rating from a customer after enforcing COVID masking rules
  • 45% of all deactivated drivers believe customer discrimination led to their deactivation

In dehumanizing and unsafe workplace, drivers have no guarantee of fair treatment

App-based drivers internationally and across the U.S. face a similar predicament: making a livelihood with few safeguards and without the ability to control their working conditions. Forty percent of deactivated Uber drivers and 16% of deactivated Lyft drivers reported that they were not provided enough information by the company on how to appeal their deactivation.

Meanwhile, drivers who faced discrimination and harassment overwhelmingly felt that any complaints they made to Uber and Lyft went unheard. Only 3% of surveyed drivers who filed a complaint indicated that Uber or Lyft investigated the matter and adequately addressed the situation. One in four drivers who experienced customer bias or discrimination did not file a complaint because they did not have enough information on how to do so.

“Uber and Lyft are quick to say that they have a deactivation appeal process, but that process is only legitimate if drivers can actually use it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” said Nicole Moore, President of Rideshare Drivers United who has been an app-based driver since 2017. “To get the companies to respond, you have to relentlessly call, email, and visit the hub office and pray that you’re lucky. For drivers who don’t use English, there’s no route forward. It’s an exercise in wearing people down until they give up.”

In the report, ALC and RDU share key recommendations for companies and policymakers to provide drivers with essential protections against discrimination, harassment, violence, and the dehumanizing insecurity of algorithm-based firings:

  • Provide just cause and due process for deactivated drivers by establishing a clear, transparent policy and fair and timely hearing proceedings that are easily accessible to drivers
  • Address customer bias and discrimination against drivers by conducting transparent investigations and removing economic incentives for customers to file complaints without merit
  • Provide drivers with all the basic labor protections afforded to workers classified as employees
  • Protect drivers from workplace violence and sexual harassment by instituting safety measures in consultation with drivers and consistent with state and federal health and safety standards

“Drivers’ workplaces – their cars – are only safe if everyone in them is safe. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of corporations like Uber and Lyft to protect both the people who work for them and their customers,” said Ammad Rafiqi with ALC’s workers’ rights program. “As a recent Cal/OSHA citation affirmed, Uber and Lyft are not exempt from California’s health and safety protections, and that basic tenet should apply to all labor protections afforded to workers. These are basic protections and rights that all workers should have, no matter who hires us.”