Harassment and indifference: Passengers say Lyft isn't doing enough to monitor drivers

Women who spoke with NBC News say that their complaints of harassment by Lyft drivers have not been taken seriously by the company, leaving them to turn to social media as a last resort.

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By Chiara Sottile and Jacob Ward

On any given day, the customer service Twitter account for ride-hailing company Lyft receives comments from a cascade of women alleging sexual harassment by the company’s drivers.

“This man is using lyft to try and kidnap females,” one Twitter user recently wrote. “My ride with him was the most scariest thing that ever happened to me and it’s not just me that he done this to I have screenshots of plenty of women saying he did the same to them.”

Another user pleaded for a response from the company: “Some of your drivers are sexual harassers and you respond by not responding to valid complaints. Seriously?!”

Almost every tweet receives a form of the same response: “The safety of our community is our top priority.”

But women who spoke with NBC News say that their complaints of harassment by Lyft drivers have not been taken seriously by the company, leaving them to turn to social media as a last resort. Though the company made itself known for bright pink mustaches and a brand built on “social good,” some riders say Lyft is yet to address an ongoing pattern of sexual harassment by drivers on its platform.

While Lyft and Uber have dealt with harassment issues for years, the problem recently received increased attention after complaints from Anna Gillcrist went viral on Twitter, helped in part by movie director Judd Apatow.

Gillcrist, 28, of Los Angeles, told NBC News that she complained to Lyft after she said a driver leaned in close to her and asked if her boyfriend was home as he drove very slowly up her street in the early morning hours of April 7.

“I just remember realizing that the door was locked. And I said, ‘Please unlock the door,’” Gillcrist said.

But the driver didn’t unlock the door, she said, instead continuing to drive past her apartment.

“I just, you know, pried the lock up,” Gillcrist said. “And I jumped out of the [moving] car and ran to my apartment.”

Gillcrist reported the harrowing experience to the company by phone and via the Lyft app. The next day, a customer service representative emailed her that Lyft had “followed up with the driver to take the appropriate and necessary actions.”

“It truly felt for all intents and purposes like I was speaking to a robot,” Gillcrist said.

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But beyond apologizing and refunding the ride, the company’s representative wouldn’t specify what had happened to the driver.

“I was like, ‘you need to make sure that this driver is fired. He will be fired, right?’” Gillcrist said.

Only after repeated emails to the company and after Gillcrist’s tweet went viral would the company confirm that the driver had been removed from the platform.

Two former employees at Lyft’s customer service call center in Nashville, Tennesses, said that they regularly received calls about “creepy” drivers, though they said they received only two weeks of training and none that dealt specifically with how to handle sexual harassment claims.

One former call center employee, who asked to remain anonymous because he signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company, said the people handling harassment complaints are underprepared.

“Nobody who calls Lyft who was harassed thinks they are talking to a 20-something with no training.”

‘Safety is fundamental’

The rise of gig economy companies such as Lyft, in which drivers are treated as independent contractors rather than full-time employees, has altered the economics of labor and the relationship between workers and the companies that depend on them.

As Uber and Lyft grew quickly, the issue of sexual harassment and assault by drivers on passengers emerged as a persistent problem. One survey of 500 women by the National Council for Home Safety and Security, a trade association of security companies, found 23 percent of Uber customers and 15 percent of Lyft customers said they reported uncomfortable encounters with drivers.

Lyft has said that it continually checks the criminal records of its drivers, offers optional anti-harassment training, and that it is planning further safety improvements. But the company cannot force its drivers to complete the trainings since they are contractors.

Lyft has also said it will be releasing a transparency report but refused to provide a specific time frame for it. Rival ride-hailing service Uber has already released a transparency report showing how many requests it has received from law enforcement agencies about riders and drivers in the course of a criminal investigation, though it does not specify how many of those are related to harassment. Uber has said it will release an updated report with that breakdown later this year.

But Lyft otherwise declined to answer specific questions about the issue of driver harassment, writing in a statement: “Safety is fundamental to Lyft. Since day one, we have designed policies and features that protect drivers and riders."

While Lyft won’t reveal how frequently it receives complaints about sexual harassment in the network of cars on its platform, and there is no comprehensive data to compare reports against other ride-share platforms or taxi drivers, the volume of complaints on social media alone indicates a troubling pattern.

Lyft has introduced a variety of new safety measures, including plans for a passenger 911 button. Uber already offers a passenger 911 button in more than 100 cities that not only connects to emergency dispatch, but also sends a rider’s GPS location, car make and model, and license plate number. Uber is also rolling out a “Ride Check” feature soon that initiates a check-in from Uber’s customer service team if a trip has unexpectedly paused for a long period of time.

‘The tweets don’t change’

Though Lyft maintains that members of its “Trust and Safety” team do receive training in sexual harassment, a Trust and Safety team employee who worked for Lyft until early 2019 told NBC News that “nothing in the training prepared me to talk to victims of sexual harassment.”

Furthermore, he said, the “investigation” that Lyft claims to do following rider complaints is no more than following up with the rider and driver and checking if the driver has previous complaints against him or her.

“I’ve seen cases where the driver was accused of groping someone or assaulting someone and they weren’t removed from the platform because they have otherwise good ratings,” the former employee said.

Allison Tielking, a computer science student at Stanford University, said she was harassed three separate times by three different Lyft drivers — all in the summer of 2018. On one occasion, she said a Lyft driver wouldn’t allow her to exit his vehicle until she gave him her phone number.

Tielking thought for sure when she reported the experiences to the company, it would immediately assure her the driver would be removed from the platform and refund her ride. But she said neither happened. After Tielking reported her experiences to the company, she said Lyft’s customer service gave her “a very canned response” and a $15 credit to use the app again.

To this day, Tielking said she fears her drivers could still be driving on the Lyft platform, possibly harassing other women.

“The response hasn't changed,” she said. The emails don't change. The tweets don't change.”