AS UBER PROBES SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT ITS OFFICES, IT OVERLOOKS HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF FEMALE DRIVERS
In 2012 shortly after Uber started operating in Los Angeles, Rachel Galindo bought a new car and signed up as a driver. She had worked as a journeyman carpenter, but contractors who used to hire her stopped calling after she transitioned her gender. Driving for Uber, Galindo hoped to avoid transphobia — after all, the company’s own billboards made the tantalizing promise: “Be your own boss.”
The harassment began almost immediately.
On three separate occasions, she said, passengers got into her car and, without saying anything else, simply asked, “How much for a BJ?” Another passenger kept referring to her as “it” during the ride and, when Galindo asked her to stop, the passenger responded, “Well, I just don’t know ‘what’ you are.”
She repeatedly complained to Uber about such incidents, but she said the company would only respond using generic emails — it took three years of lodging regular complaints for an actual Uber employee to call Galindo on the phone to discuss the repeated harassment.
“I kept crying for help,” she said. “But no one was listening.”
Galindo said that she sees parallels between her experience and that of Susan Fowler, the former engineer at Uber’s corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley who published a blog post in February detailing a culture of sexual harassment inside Uber. Within hours, the company had sprung into action: Board member Arianna Huffington demanded an investigation; the company retained former Attorney General Eric Holder to head up an inquiry; and CEO Travis Kalanick called a company-wide meeting, where he reportedly began crying with remorse. (Neither Huffington nor Holder responded to requests for comment.)
Watching the Fowler scandal unfold, Galindo said she couldn’t help but feel overlooked. “I do think Susan [Fowler] and I were victims of the same ‘bro-fraternity’ culture at Uber,” she said. “But for us female drivers, it’s different than with engineers. The company views us as expendable, as having no value at all.”
Uber is now in the midst of a company-wide review of its sexual harassment policies. Although the review was supposed to wind down last month, in a memo to Uber staff in late April Huffington said that Holder was going to take until the end of May “to ensure that no stone is left unturned.” Despite the promise of a thorough investigation, a company spokesperson confirmed that the sexual harassment review only includes the treatment of its full-time employees like Fowler. Drivers like Galindo, the spokesperson said, don’t qualify because they are contract workers.
Only a small fraction of women who make their living from Uber, however, are in Fowler’s position. The company technically only employs around 2,000 women. The vast majority of women who make their living from Uber are independent contract drivers like Galindo. The company, which only releases driver data selectively, typically when it seems to serve the company’s PR goals, reported that around 20 percent of its drivers were female, and that it had signed up 230,000 new female drivers in 2015. It has promised that, by 2020, more than a million women will be driving for the platform, an important milestone as Uber competes for women riders with startups like the female-focused Safr.
Female Uber drivers are in uncharted terrain, at the very frontier of a massive tech company’s freewheeling experiment with a new kind of employee-employer relationship. They’re considered independent contractors, even though Uber still exerts significant control over their work-lives: The company can terminate drivers for low ratings or for canceling too many trips, and as the New York Times recently reported, it even manipulates them with physiological tricks and subliminal inducements to work longer hours. These women drivers of course also share the same challenges as any women in customer service: They expose themselves to unwanted sexual advances and harassing comments just like, say, a cashier at Starbucks; the reprehensible behavior of customers isn’t the fault of the company.
Yet Uber has created a totally new dynamic: It has recruited thousands of women drivers and arranged for them to be with strange men in private cars — which don’t have the traditional taxicab Plexiglas barriers installed. In theory, Uber also has unprecedented resources to create a safe work environment for these women. It’s collected piles of data from its customers; their real names, phone numbers, and financial information, along with their movements and travel habits. And unlike a Starbucks, it can unilaterally ban harassers from its platform, by simply kicking them off the app. But while the company has plowed untold resources into recruiting drivers and keeping them on the platform, many female drivers said that discouraging and investigating sexual harassment on the job has not been the company’s priority.
“That chauvinistic corporate culture, that’s something we women drivers feel very intensely,” said Tracy, an Uber driver in Portland, Oregon, and the administrator for an online community of more than 1,000 female drivers. Tracy, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals from Uber, coaches drivers on staying safe on the job. She said she has mentored dozens of female drivers and never met a single one who’s satisfied with how Uber responds to reports of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual advances during a ride.
“It’s a tough issue, a lot of ‘he said, she said,’” Tracy admitted. But she argued that the company’s current policy, where Uber follows up complaints with generic responses, at least some of them apparently prewritten, is not up to the task of dealing with such issues at all. In nearly two years of driving, Tracy has never been comfortable with how Uber handled her own reports of sexual harassment. In two particularly egregious examples, she said the company didn’t respond when she submitted a complaint about a couple who had sex in her car, or to another about a male passenger who appeared to be physically menacing his female companion.
“For Uber to say that they take sexual harassment of drivers seriously — that’s mind-boggling to me,” Tracy said. If a driver has to end a ride because of a sexually harassing passenger, Tracy thinks Uber should at the very least follow up with a phone call and make drivers aware that it is earnestly trying to get to the bottom of the incident, instead of brushing it aside as just another sub-par Uber ride.
Uber disputes that characterization. “Sexual harassment is not tolerated,” read a written Uber statement provided by a spokesperson. “We want everyone to have a good Uber experience, and that starts with mutual respect. Anyone who is found to violate our community guidelines may lose their access to Uber.” The spokesperson said that when investigating claims of discrimination or harassment, the company would “reach out to the driver by phone to gather more information and check on his or her wellbeing. Following that, we would proceed with a full review of the matter, which includes speaking to the rider, reviewing trip data and history, and any other relevant facts.”
The spokesperson also pointed to a post on Uber’s website titled “The Golden Rule.” “Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself. It’s a universal truth we were all taught by our parents,” the post reads. “That’s important here at Uber.”
But female Uber drivers can easily find themselves in a predicament. Uber riders rate each driver on a five-star scale and, if a driver’s average dips just a few tenths of a point below perfect, Uber can terminate her. So women are under intense pressure to tolerate sexual harassment with a smile.
“Because of how those ratings work, there’s an overall sense of fear among drivers that they could lose their jobs,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director at the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union that includes more than 5,000 Uber drivers. “For women drivers — these are often working-class women — they are struggling to make ends meet.” Female drivers of taxis have longed faced similar challenges in terms of sexual harassment, though Desai said that the glass partition in traditional cabs does offer women drivers a greater sense of security. And unlike Uber drivers, female cab drivers can’t be fired for low ratings.
Danielle, a female Uber driver in California, recalled one harrowing ride during which she endured harassment from drunken passengers in silence for fear of a bad rating. “When I told the passengers I had seven children, one of the guys said, ‘Your vagina must be wrecked,’” she told me in an interview for the website The Verge. “Driving for Uber, this is my job, and if my rating gets too low, I can lose it.” So instead of confronting the passengers, Danielle laughed alongside her drunken riders.
The Uber spokesperson said drivers who think they’ve received a low rating because of bias or want to flag problematic passengers can lodge such complaints inside the app. An Uber driver shared screenshots of the app’s complaint system: After a ride with a harassing passenger, drivers have two options. They can flag a rider as “unpleasant” — with a text box to elaborate — or report a “serious incident,” something the app defines as anything that impacted the driver’s “personal safety or ability to complete this trip.”
What happens afterward can often be impersonal, maddening, time-consuming, and entirely lacking in transparency, female drivers said.
Of course a driver can also end a ride prematurely and kick the passenger out — but the Uber app, drivers said, does not distinguish between a driver who terminated a ride because a passenger was harassing, or for a more generic reason, such as a passenger who wanted the driver to speed or make an illegal U-turn. After a driver files a complaint about an unpleasant rider, the Uber app produces an automated response: “Your concerns about this rider have been noted, and we’ll make sure you don’t get matched with them again. Please let us know if there’s anything more we can do to support you. We are here to help.”
Following up, Tracy said, is a total waste of time. At the very least, she said, Uber should have a dedicated reporting system for sexual harassment and discrimination — instead of lumping those complaints in with more mundane complaints about a faulty GPS system, or passengers eating messy food.
For its part, Uber said it has dedicated teams in Phoenix and Chicago for issues it considers serious or sensitive and that the teams are provided with weeks of training. It would not answer questions about what, if any, training support staff had to field sexual harassment allegations, how many people work on special teams, and how Uber flags complaints drivers submit to make sure the appropriate team is called in to investigate.
Indeed, Uber does not make public how exactly it handles sexual harassment allegations from female drivers beyond a blanket promise that incidents will be “investigated.” One of the only glimpses into Uber’s internal process came in 2016, when someone leaked screenshots from the company’s system to BuzzFeed showing more than 10,000 customer support records related to sexual assault and rape between December 2012 and August 2015 (the report did not include sexual harassment complaints). Uber said BuzzFeed’s statistics were misleading. It claimed that the screenshots included claims where the words “sexual assault” and “rape” were used in communications with customers, but were not official complaints of incidents. At the time, Uber claimed “fewer than” 170 of these records represented actual sexual assault complaints and declined to explain to BuzzFeed how it determined the credibility of rape and sexual assault claims.
No matter the numbers, women drivers said lodging a complaint is like shouting into a void — Uber does not alert them to the outcome of its investigations, citing privacy concerns.
In one instance, Galindo flagged a male rider who moved to touch her arm in way that made her uncomfortable. “[He is] a big dude, tightly fitting on the front passenger seat, raise[s] his left arm and tries to lay his hand on me,” she wrote in a note to Uber. “I raise[d] my right arm and push his hand with my forearm.” The man relented, but he had been making some off-color comments about women during the ride, and Galindo thought Uber should be alerted.
Galindo shared Uber’s response to the incident, a generic email that thanked her for being professional but didn’t indicate the incident would be followed up on. “I can understand why you wrote in about this. I know that not all trips will have 5-star riders,” an Uber rep who identifies herself as Danica wrote. “We trust and appreciate your professionalism and judgment to handle challenging situations like this one.”
On another occasion, Galindo wrote to Uber to complain that she was receiving biased ratings as a result of being transgender. “DON’T RESPOND WITH THE FOLLOWING,” she wrote, posting a generic response she had received from the company in the past, which concluded: “‘Please don’t worry about any individual trip rating. Every driver gets an angry rider once in a while.’”
An Uber rep named Angilla then responded with a variation on that exact message. “I understand your frustration here and I’m happy to help,” she wrote. “Please don’t worry about any individual trip rating. Every driver gets an angry rider once in a while.”
When presented with Galindo’s emails, Uber said her complaints were investigated by a team that specializes in accessibility and discrimination issues but would not elaborate further.
Galindo and other drivers obsessively try to avoid low ratings because recovering from a rating-related deactivation is not easy. Drivers can pay to take a course — similar to traffic school — to get reinstated. Or they can go to their local “Greenlight Hub,” brick and mortar offices that the company operates in major cities; there drivers can meet with representatives face to face and plead their cases.
“If you go in, you aren’t allowed to bring anyone with you — no lawyers, not even a friend to translate, if English isn’t your first language,” said Dawn Gearhart, a Teamsters Union official who organizes Uber drivers in Washington state. Gearhart also said she was once thrown out of a Greenlight Hub in Seattle when she tried to help a driver who didn’t speak English navigate the appeal process last year. Uber denied this, and said translators and lawyers are welcome to accompany drivers at the Hubs, although representatives there will not interact with lawyers without involving Uber’s legal team.
“In my experience, almost all the Uber employees at the Hub are men,” said Tracy, the driver from Portland, based on visits to deal with payment issues.
Uber said it has a 24/7 team that responds to drivers in distress, and that it hires former law enforcement officials to investigate claims. The company said it uses GPS data and customer information to support its investigations, but beyond that a company spokesperson would not clarify what exactly constitutes a full “investigation” of sexual harassment by passengers. The spokesperson also would not clarify how drivers can appeal outcomes they don’t think are fair, and what criteria the company uses to determine if a driver’s claims are credible at all.
Beth, a female driver in Los Angeles who’s been working with Uber for the past four years and asked that her real name not be used, said the company has gotten more responsive over time to drivers who have negative experiences with a passenger. “When they first launched out here, sometimes you’d lodge a complaint and you’d get zero response — just silence,” she recalled. “Now, if it’s something serious involving violence or really intense harassment, and you want to get the police involved, sure, you’ll get a call from Uber.”
The Uber spokesperson emphasized that the company’s approach to sexual harassment has evolved over time, but would not specify what new procedures were introduced at what time. Uber did quietly add a “critical safety response” line in some cities recently, where drivers can report a violent incident. But Uber hasn’t publicly clarified if the number is intended to be a venue for women to report sexual harassment or discrimination, or if it’s simply intended for potentially illegal and violent incidents. And a recent report by The Guardian revealed that Uber apparently refused to share a passenger’s information with law enforcement, even after a female driver accused the passenger of sexual assault.
There’s a whole lot of space between what’s inappropriate and what’s illegal,” explained Beth Robinson, an associate at Fortis Law Partners who writes a regular column on employment law for the legal publication Above the Law. “These Uber drivers find themselves in that space a lot of the time.”
And drivers who feel that the company hasn’t taken sexual harassment from riders seriously have limited legal recourse, Robinson added. “Anti-harassment policies exist to protect employees at companies,” she said. “Not third-party interactions, like those of passengers and contract Uber drivers.”
Certain states, including California, where Galindo lives, have extended some sexual harassment protections to contractors. But, since the harassment comes from customers and not supervisors, a driver would have to assert Uber is creating a “hostile work environment,” a high legal bar that requires proof that the treatment is “severe” or “pervasive.”
“If the complaint process for sexual harassment is, in essence, a black hole, and a number of women have brought this to the attention of the company and the company has refused to do something about it — then there could be some potential liability,” said Paula Brantner, a lawyer and former executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that advocates for workplace rights.
Even in the absence of a lawsuit, Brantner suggested that Uber should take the opportunity to review how it fields driver complaints. “If there is not a legal remedy, there needs to be an HR remedy,” she said.
And, in the wake of the Fowler scandal, for instance, Uber CEO Kalanick did promise to order “an independent review into the specific issues relating to the workplace environment raised by Susan Fowler, as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly.”
But omitting drivers from the policy review, Brantner said, suggests that the company is not addressing sexual harassment in earnest in all its forms. “The drivers are the essence of the company — compared to the relatively small number of women who work at corporate headquarters,” she said.
Uber may be betting that female drivers won’t stick around long enough to get a full picture of how the company handles sexual harassment claims. A 2015 study indicated that one in four Uber drivers were new to the platform in a given month, and that about half of new drivers quit within the first year. Uber, for its part, insists that many of its drivers sign up as a temporary stopgap — to make some money in between full-time jobs — and that the turnover rate is perfectly natural.
Though Tracy says every driver’s experience is different, many do leave Uber because of harassing passengers. “Great drivers quit,” she said.
Galindo kept driving for Uber for four years because she said workplace discrimination prevented her landing steady carpentry jobs. She’s recently stopped working for Uber, however, after a friend offered her a well-paying job overseeing a team of carpenters on a construction site.
She has considered filing a suit. But ultimately, the same economic forces that pressure female drivers to endure harassment on the job also dissuaded her from pursuing it. “I live paycheck to paycheck, [it’s] hard to afford time off,” she said. “I just don’t have the means to buy justice.”
Update: May 4, 7:05 p.m.
This piece was updated to include additional details sent by Uber after publication, including to dispute some of Gearhart’s statements about Greenlight Hubs.