Uber has warned some drivers in California that they may be kicked off the platform for avoiding customers in “disadvantaged” areas, after the company said some were using a new booking policy to circumvent low-income patrons.
Starting in January, Uber made it possible for drivers in the state to see the destination of a ride before deciding whether or not to take the business — part of an effort to strengthen its argument that its workers are “independent” and therefore should not get employee benefits.
But the company has confirmed that it has had to warn an unspecified number of drivers against avoiding areas that “largely comprised of low-income residents, minority residents and/or other residents who may belong to certain disadvantaged communities”.
“Over the years, ride-sharing has improved access to transportation for many people who previously struggled to get a reliable ride to and from their homes, simply because of where they lived,” Uber said in a statement. “That’s why we are closely monitoring the impact of recent product changes we’ve made in California due to a new state law.”
The company said that overall it had not seen a pattern of drivers avoiding disadvantaged areas, but that it would “remain vigilant and keep a close eye on this issue across the state”. Uber declined to say how many drivers had received a location discrimination warning or if any had been banned or suspended as a result.
“This outcome was fairly predictable,” said Saira Hussain, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital rights advocacy group.
“Studies have shown that ride-share platforms have a longstanding discrimination problem, with black riders facing longer wait times and more frequent cancellations. Civil rights advocates have proposed several measures, such as anonymising the amount of rider data that a driver can see.”
Eihab Amari, a driver who received a warning from Uber over behaviour it perceived to be discriminatory, said he disputed its algorithm’s determination.
“It’s ironic because, me myself, I’m considered low-income,” said Mr Amari, a 24-year-old Yemeni-American. He said he received the notice after a day of driving in Oakland, a city neighbouring San Francisco.
“I took a lot of rides from low-income areas, if you want to call it that,” he said. “I did a bunch of rides and then I rejected two — because they were really short trips. The amount of money that I’m going to make from those trips is not going to be worth the amount of time I’m going to spend on it.”
Uber did not offer a comment on Mr Amari’s situation, which was first brought to light by ride-share blogger Christian Perea.
In an earnings call last month, chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said the level of service had got “worse” in California, with wait times increasing because of the changes. Prices in California were up compared with the rest of the country, he added.