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Uber and Lyft drivers in California say they’ve been spontaneously fired by apps, report finds

Rideshare drivers surveyed, primarily people of color, who've been let go without much explanation say they face a complicated appeals process with little recourse to preserve their livelihoods, new report says.
Uber and Lyft signage on a vehicle at Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2022.
Two-thirds of California Uber and Lyft drivers have been "deactivated" by apps, according to recently released data. Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2022. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

For some Uber and Lyft drivers in California, a new fear has taken hold. One day they worry they’ll get into a car to start a shift, and their app will let them know they’ve been fired.

According to a new report, there's a reason behind that fear. 

Data released this week by the Asian Law Caucus and Rideshare Drivers United, a drivers’ union, said that two-thirds of Uber and Lyft drivers in California had experienced deactivation by the app, and among those surveyed, the deactivation disproportionately affected people of color.

Thirty percent of drivers said they were given no explanation as to why they were let go. Forty two percent said the app cited customer complaints. 

“This reality is that now app-based drivers can be fired, not even by a human being, but just by an app,” said Asian Law Caucus attorney Winnie Kao, who worked on the report. “That you can wake up one day and try to turn on the app to go to work, and you’re just blocked. Hearing the stories from the drivers about that was really troubling and really disturbing.”

In a statement to NBC News, an Uber spokesperson refuted that, saying its deactivation process was run by human representatives who conduct a thorough evaluation before making a decision. 

“We know that drivers rely on Uber to earn, so the decision to deactivate a driver’s account is one that we do not take lightly,” the spokesperson said. “Unless there is a serious emergency or safety threat, we provide multiple warnings to drivers before permanently deactivating their account. And we provide drivers with the option to appeal eligible deactivations, including by submitting additional photo or video evidence.”

A representative for Lyft said the report was inaccurate. 

“We strongly condemn discrimination of any kind and are committed to preventing it on our platform,” the representative said. “This report is flawed to its core with a predetermined conclusion not grounded in facts. Lyft takes safety reports from riders and drivers seriously and reviews and investigates them to determine the appropriate course of action. This report does not reflect the actual experiences of the majority of drivers.” 

More than 800 drivers across California filled out the survey, most of them immigrants and people of color. Many reported facing discrimination, harassment and assault while they were driving. Half of drivers said they experienced racism, and 43% said they faced sexual harassment while on the job.

A common thread connecting many of these stories, the report’s authors said, was that the drivers themselves feared facing disciplinary action from customer complaints. Fifty percent of surveyed drivers who reported experiencing racism to their rideshare app said the customers who were racist also filed complaints about them.

According to the survey, drivers of color were deactivated significantly more often than white drivers. Nearly 70% of drivers of color experienced either a temporary or permanent deactivation, compared with 57% of white drivers. Some of the drivers who responded to the survey said they feared racist passengers could end their job on a whim with a false complaint. 

“Customer input can have such an impact on whether the drivers can continue to use these apps or keep working and have their pay or benefits,” Kao said. “There’s so many discriminatory and biased interactions that are happening and, and that they’re completely unchecked.”

Rideshare apps using these complaints to determine whether drivers can do their jobs can be problematic, Kao said. The stories she heard exemplified how necessary elementary safeguards were in any workplace, including a rideshare car, she said.

“Drivers should have all the basic labor protections that are afforded to workers who are classified as employees,” she said. “Certain basic things, like the right to a safe and healthy workplace, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to a workplace free of retaliation and with safety net measures. I mean, that should apply to all workers, no matter what your status is.”

A vast majority of respondents who were deactivated said it took a huge toll on their lives; 86% said they experienced hardship as a direct result. Eighteen percent lost their cars; 12% lost their homes. 

“These are not isolated incidents,” Kao said. “These experiences are widespread. It’s a systemic problem.”