14:23, May 01 398 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-01 14:23:02
Female Uber driver says company did nothing after passengers assaulted her

The Uber passenger said he wanted to give a tip. The driver, Becky Graham, had picked up two men at a bar in November of 2015 and was dropping them at a hotel in San Diego when she said one came up by her side – and grabbed her head with his hands.

“He said, ‘My tip is the tip of my tongue,’” Graham, 42, recounted in a recent interview, describing how the intoxicated man shoved his tongue in her ear and began licking the side of her face. Behind her, she said, the other man grabbed her and tried pulling her into the back seat.

“They were basically playing tug of war with me,” she said, adding that one of them told her: “‘You’re coming to the hotel with us.’”

She screamed and eventually fought them off, but not before they injured her ribs, neck, shoulder and badly damaged her teeth, Graham said. She later gave a report to an officer at a hospital, hoping police could work with Uber to identify the passenger and file assault charges.

But according to Graham and emails between police and Uber, the company did not disclose the passenger’s name to law enforcement, and the criminal investigation went nowhere. The company also provided little support to her as she began the process of recovering from the traumatic incident.

“Uber didn’t care,” said Graham, who has stopped working for Uber, but continues to drive for competitor Lyft. “It’s almost like they’re an accessory by not giving up information. They’re not willing to do anything to help.”

Uber also refused to tell her whether the passenger was still able to use the platform, records show. After the Guardian contacted the company about Graham’s case, Uber claimed that the passenger was banned after the incident.

The allegations from Graham come at a time when the San Francisco company is facing increasing scrutiny over its treatment of drivers and its refusal to classify them as employees or provide traditional benefits and protections. The startup has continued to intensify its anti-union campaigns, and CEO Travis Kalanick was recently caught on tape berating a driver who questioned him about labor practices.

Uber is also reeling from claims that the male-dominated workplace condones sexual harassment and is a hostile environment for female engineers. At the same time, the company has battled scandals surrounding its ethically questionable tactics of evading law enforcement and manipulating drivers to maximize profits.

Since Uber launched seven years ago, much of the debate around the safety of the service has centered on the risks facing female passengers. Critics have argued that the company’s defiance of traditional employment regulations, such as rigorous background checks, has led to sexual assaults by drivers on passengers.

Graham’s case, however, sheds light on the vulnerability of women who drive for Uber.

On 13 November 2015, Graham had a busy night driving for Uber due to a large conference downtown. The two men she was dropping off at around 1.50am appeared to be in their late 20s or 30s and were drunk, she told police after the incident, records show.

They looked like businessmen, she told the Guardian, and it seemed clear one was upset that he did not find a woman to spend the night with him: “He was really angry. It felt like he was taking his frustrations out on me.”

The men were also homophobic, said Graham, who is lesbian. As one of them forced himself on her, he repeatedly asked her why she doesn’t kiss men and said, ‘“I want to be your first,’” Graham recalled, adding, “I thought I was going to get raped.”

Graham said eventually they gave up and cursed her out before leaving. She said she was sent into a state of shock and later went to a hospital where the assault was reported to police and a doctor determined that she had suffered a neck strain. She said two front teeth were cracked during the scuffle and later fell out.

She immediately alerted Uber support staff, who expressed sympathy to her in emails, saying the company would take her complaint “extremely seriously” and that no passenger should “behave in such an unprofessional way”.

“Your safety is a very high priority to us, and we want to ensure that this does not happen again,” Uber wrote to Graham days after the incident.

But according to Graham, a San Diego police detective investigating her case told her that Uber would not disclose the identity of the passenger without a subpoena and that he couldn’t get a warrant since there was no evidence beyond her testimony. The detective echoed this account in a recent email to Graham, adding the case was “inactivated” as a result.

An Uber spokesperson told the Guardian that the company did not receive any legal requests from police regarding Graham’s case. Uber’s law enforcement policies state it requires a subpoena to disclose “basic information”.

A few days after the incident in 2015, Uber wrote to Graham: “You do not have to worry about being paired with this rider in the future.” The company further reminded her that if she felt uncomfortable or unsafe, she could end a trip and that she should call 911 if she was ever in danger.

When Graham followed up recently to ask if Uber had permanently banned the passenger or simply blocked him from being assigned to her, the company declined to answer. Uber also refused to give her any information about the passenger’s identity, citing privacy rules. But a spokeswoman this week said: “What Rebecca reported to Uber and police was awful. That behavior will not be tolerated by anyone who uses Uber and that rider’s account remains banned.”

The police department declined to comment to the Guardian, claiming the case was still under investigation.

For her part, Graham remains furious that Uber appeared to do nothing to assist police or help her deal with the aftermath of a violent attack on the job.

“To me, they were protecting their income, the money coming in from that passenger, not the drivers who are risking their lives just trying to move people around,” she said.

Given that Uber would not previously answer her questions about whether the passenger was banned, Graham said she was skeptical of the company’s claims to the Guardian that he had been blocked since the incident.

“You would think if they blocked him, they would’ve let me know so I wouldn’t worry so much about other people getting hurt,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”

Uber declined the Guardian’s request for records demonstrating that the passenger had been banned since November 2015.

Graham’s complaints aren’t unique. For years, female Uber drivers have raised concerns about facing mistreatment from passengers, with some claiming that the company allows passengers to harass drivers after a ride has ended.

Veena Dubal, an associate law professor at the University of California, Hastings, argued that the company should be forced to classify its drivers as employees, in which case it would be required to follow higher workplace standards and have systems in place for workers to report this kind of mistreatment.

“In any sort of service industry where you have customers interacting with employees, employers have a duty to make sure that when there are customers who are violent or belligerent or hostile, their employees are protected,” she said.

But since Uber maintains that drivers are independent contractors, the company is incentivized not to offer support, she added.

Alexandria Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Uber driver in the Bay Area, said she has twice felt threatened by male passengers, including one intoxicated man who insisted that he navigate and ended up taking her to a secluded area.

She said she has no confidence that Uber takes complaints about dangerous passengers seriously.

“They don’t care about what happened,” she said. “It’s all about, how can we make money?”

Graham said she wished Uber had offered her any kind of support in the form of free counseling or lost wages. She said she struggled to return to driving and that she still suffers lingering traumas today. She has nightmares and flashbacks and sometimes panics or shuts down when she logs in to drive for work.

She said she has also repeatedly been denied jobs in the the service industry, because businesses don’t want to hire her due to the gaps in her teeth, which she hasn’t been able to fix since the attack.

Graham said that she hopes police and Uber can help her find some sort of closure, but is not sure that will ever happen: “I’m just waiting to move on.”

Contact the author: sam.levin@theguardian.com