James Jordan had worked as an Uber driver in Los Angeles for five and a half years by the spring of 2022. But in late March, after a flurry of customer complaints, Jordan found that his account had been permanently deactivated, leaving the single father of five, for whom Uber was his only source of income, functionally jobless with no notice.
“I had done more than 27,000 rides,” he says. “Then in one week or 10 days, I got more complaints than I had within those five and a half years.”
Jordan, who estimates that he earned between $8,000-$10,000 per month as an Uber driver, appealed to the company multiple times, frantically emailing to try and get his account reinstated, but was told that his deactivation was final. One customer alleged that Jordan had tried to hit her with his car. In response, he offered to send the company footage from his dashcam to prove the incident hadn’t occurred. “But they weren’t interested in that,” he said.
Uber spokesperson Navideh Forghani told WIRED that the company had no record of Jordan submitting evidence to contest his deactivation.
“To get the companies to respond, you have to relentlessly call, email, and visit the hub office and pray that you’re lucky,” says Nicole Moore, president of Rideshare Drivers United, an independent lobby group based in California. “For drivers who don’t use English, there’s no route forward. It’s an exercise in wearing people down until they give up.”
Jordan is not alone. A new report from civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus (AAAJ-ALC) and Rideshare Drivers United found that drivers of color working for Uber and Lyft—like Jordan, who is Black—and immigrant drivers were more likely to have their accounts deactivated after customer complaints. Of the 810 drivers surveyed, 69 percent of non-white drivers said they had faced either permanent or temporary deactivation, as opposed to only 57 percent of white drivers. Drivers who didn’t speak English or were not entirely proficient in English were also much more likely to have their accounts deactivated than those who speak the language fluently.
“We have a rigorous evaluation process, led by humans, that reviews reports and determines whether temporary or permanent account deactivation is warranted,” Forghani says. “Unless there is a serious emergency or safety threat, we provide multiple warnings to drivers before permanently deactivating their account.”
Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.
The AAAJ-ALC survey found that a quarter of drivers received poor reviews from customers when enforcing COVID safety policies. Jordan believes his spate of complaints may have been partially driven by a conflict between Uber’s company policies, which required drivers and riders to continue to wear face masks, and California’s state policies, which lifted mask mandates on March 1, 2022. And he, like nearly half of those surveyed, wonders whether his race played a part in the negative ratings that led to his deactivation.
“One of the problems here is that the customer input, or the complaints or the ratings, are completely unchecked,” says Winifred Kao, senior counsel at AAAJ-ALC, noting that many drivers didn’t even know the nature of the allegations against them and did not get a chance to respond. “I think what we found here with the survey is that rideshare drivers were uniquely exposed and vulnerable to that kind of customer discrimination, bias, harassment, and retaliation.”