Where Can Drivers Go if Uber or Lyft Suspends or Deactivates Them? To a Toothless City Watchdog

That watchdog program has been trying to pass a policy for over two years that would compel Uber and Lyft to provide them with more information about the reasons for deactivations.

Courtney McRae-Alston suspected the small dog in a pet carrier was no service animal.

“Service animals aren’t normally in carriers,” McRae-Alston says. But her Lyft pickup, a woman seeking a ride to the airport at 3 am that August morning, insisted otherwise.

So McRae-Alston, 54, asked the woman the two questions that drivers for ride-hailing services are legally allowed to ask: Is your animal required for a disability? What task does it perform?

“If you won’t answer it, I won’t accommodate you,” McRae-Alston recalls saying. “The woman said, ‘How dare you.’”

McRae-Alston woke up the following morning to a notification from Lyft: She’d been deactivated from the platform.

Drivers for ride-hailing services are contractors, not employees. That means they don’t have a lot of recourse if Lyft or Uber kicks them off its app. But three years ago, the city of Portland established a program that’s supposed to help mediate such disputes. So McRae-Alston went there to contest the deactivation, like 73 others have between late 2019 and February of this year.

It did her no good. The Portland Bureau of Transportation’s TNC Drivers Advisory Committee and its ombudsperson are toothless watchdogs—because they can’t compel access to the data underlying driver suspensions. Uber and Lyft say much of that information is proprietary.

A policy that would set clear standards for what documentation ride-hailing services must share about incidents and how quickly is itself stuck in limbo, leaving an advisory body that’s supposed to advocate for drivers—many of whom are immigrants and people of color—mostly powerless.

Alma Raya, a former chair of the advisory committee, saw the policy stagnate for two years.

“The committee would pass recommendations, the bureau goes to talk to [Uber and Lyft], it gets watered down and, years down the road, now they’re trying to implement it,” Raya says. “What is the point?”

The city contends it’s near a resolution.

“We’ve been working back and forth with [Uber and Lyft] staff and the ombudsperson to really nail down what those lines are, in terms of balancing privacy and safety for riders and getting all of the information we need to advocate for drivers,” says PBOT spokeswoman Hannah Schafer. “There’s a little more to be done, but we are very close.”

Uber notoriously bulldozed its way into the Portland market in 2013. It argued that it didn’t fit into existing regulations, and all but wiped out the city’s taxi industry.

City regulators were rocked back on their heels and have been trying to course-correct ever since.

In 2019, late City Commissioner Nick Fish established the TNC (Transportation Network Company) Drivers Advisory Committee to help advise the city on ride-hailing policy. The city also contracted with an outside law firm to set up an ombudsperson position—someone who could help drivers contest suspensions. This is a first-of-its-kind program, though Seattle does have some procedural regulations in place. (Drivers can’t go to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry, which does not typically regulate contractors.)

Drivers can be deactivated for any number of reasons: alleged offensive comments, physical touching, unsafe driving, chronically low ratings, app glitches or refusing to transport a service animal.

No matter the reason, drivers for ride-hailing services have little recourse to contest a deactivation if they dispute an allegation because they’re given little information from the companies about the incident that led to the suspension. Sometimes, they’re given no details at all.

Raya remembers how quickly she and her fellow committee members noticed a demographic trend in riders filing complaints with the ombuds office.

“A lot of people that drove their own cab or taxi ended up switching to Uber and Lyft. That’s a lot of immigrant communities and drivers of color,” Raya recalls. “We say ‘deactivation’ very lightly, but this translates to literally being fired from your job.”

Beginning in 2019, Raya and the TNC Drivers Advisory Committee began advocating that the city adopt a policy that would require ride-hailing services to divulge more information about deactivations and suspensions—such as the rider’s complaint; all documents, statements and evidence presented by the rider; and documentation of the company’s internal calculus to arrive at a deactivation.

The idea: With more information, the ombudsperson could better advocate for the driver.

The policy’s been stuck in a draft version—toggling between ride-hailing services’ attorneys, PBOT staff, city attorneys and the ombudsperson—for over two years. During that time, 74 drivers have contacted the city about being deactivated or suspended.

Sally Lajoie, the ombudsperson, says most drivers filing complaints “lack the resources to pursue arbitration,” and describes the program as “the last stop.”

Raya resigned as committee chair last fall, partly because the policy was going nowhere.

Uber and Lyft argued to the city that furnishing the ombudsperson certain information about alleged incidents would put riders’ safety and privacy at risk.

In April 2020, a public affairs executive for Uber emailed PBOT director Chris Warner about the draft: “While incidents involving sexual assault or misconduct or physical violence are extremely rare, we must follow best practices in responding to any and all reports of critical safety incidents, and use the power of our platform to help address this broader societal challenge.”

A year later, a Lyft executive named Elizabeth Gallagher argued in an email to a PBOT official that the program did its job already. She argued that the policy would allow access to “a wide swath of personally identifying and sensitive information as well as proprietary business data” that wouldn’t be necessary to resolve complaints.

Gallagher wrote that drivers, if given information about riders, could retaliate.

Mohammed Azharuddin, 31, seems an unlikely driver to retaliate. He began driving for Uber in 2019 and sent most of the income to his mother in India to pay for her cancer treatment. He was deactivated in late 2020 over allegations that he made offensive comments regarding the George Floyd protests. (He denies the allegations.)

He went through the ombuds program but said information provided about the incident was so vague he couldn’t present any evidence to dispute it.

“It absolutely made me feel like shit. I lost the opportunity to make money,” says Azharuddin, who also received an eviction notice last week. “It’s been a really difficult two years.”

Haris Rashid, 35, moved from Pakistan to the United States in 2010 and recorded more than 5,000 rides for Uber before he was deactivated in late 2019. Uber shared that suspension with Lyft, where he was also deactivated—and where he had given over 4,000 rides without any complaints. A rider alleged he’d touched their leg.

He was floored by the allegation, which he vehemently denies: “If something like that really happened, it should be more than just a deactivation. It should be investigated by law enforcement.”

Rashid took Uber to small claims court in August of this year. The parties settled and the case was closed.

“I am not interested in activation anymore,” Rashid says. “I don’t feel safe now to have someone in my car who can put any kind of allegation on me.”

Both Azharuddin and Rashid went to the ombuds program. Their deactivations were upheld.

PBOT’s Schafer says the yearslong delay in adopting a useful policy is due to the pandemic, the longevity of lawyers tweaking policy language, staff turnover at Uber and Lyft, and the slow pace of bureaucracy.

In August of this year, according to records obtained by WW, a Lyft attorney wrote, “If these changes were put into place, they would conflict with the Federal Arbitration Act,” therefore the “proposed changes to the Ombuds program would be preempted by federal law, limiting Lyft’s ability to participate in the program.”

As recently as this month, emails show, Uber and Lyft were sending suggested edits to the city.

McRae-Alston isn’t waiting. Last week, she became the first driver in Portland that went through the ombuds program to demand arbitration. She’s given up on driving—taking a job with the federal government—but wants a settlement. That’s all she can get: Drivers sign contracts with ride-hailing services that bar them from suing.

“An arbitration ruling doesn’t change the law, whereas the court ruling sets a precedent and that impacts how they’re going to treat other drivers,” she says. “But with arbitration, you’re only talking money.”