On a Sunday in late March, 34-year-old Maria Ocon called an Uber to take her to work at 90 Grados Restaurant, in Manassas, Virginia, a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant where she is a waitress. After five minutes, the driver asked her a question that left her shocked.
“He asked if I was going to kill him because Salvadorans are mafiosos,” says Ocon, who is Nicaraguan. “I guess he assumed I was Salvadoran and I guess he thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t funny.”
Ocon told the driver — who she describes as “an immigrant too, with an accent” — that she was not from El Salvador, and that he should be more careful with his comments. He did not apologize. She remained quiet the rest of the ride. But the experience stuck with her, as she grappled with being insulted for her perceived nationality. Later that day, she filed a report with Uber through the app.
“I felt really bad. And if I felt bad, how would a Salvadoran feel?” she says. “You can’t label an entire people a certain way for the actions of a few.”
Through a message on the app, Uber assured Ocon that they would not pair her with the same driver again.
Put two strangers together in a car and the conversation is bound to get awkward from time to time. A driver and passenger — or multiple passengers — may speak different languages, listen to different music and have clashing opinions, among other dissimilarities. But comments or actions sometimes cross the line, leaving ride hailing apps to respond to incidents that occur in vehicles bearing their logo. The jury is out on whether that response has been sufficient.
Just last month, a video of an out-of-control female passenger hurling threats and insults at a male Uber driver in the Bronx, New York, went viral. The screaming passenger threatened to accuse the driver of rape, and said she hoped Donald Trump would deport him. She was banned from Uber.
Susan Hendrick, a spokeswoman at Uber, tells Univision that the company takes allegations of discrimination very seriously. Every incident that is reported through the app is thoroughly checked and tracked, and the company looks out for disturbing patterns. Similar incidents that occur repeatedly with the same person, driver or passenger, may be grounds for a tougher punishment, such as a ban, she says.
“Any confirmed case can result in permanent loss of access to the app," she says. “All riders and drivers are expected to treat each other with respect.”
But law professor Veena Dubal, who is an expert on Uber and Lyft and teaches employment discrimination law at the University of California, says those actions have limits because of the non-traditional way Uber and Lyft treat their drivers. The companies maintain drivers are “contractors,” not employees.
“That’s their way to evade responsibility or any kind of liability,” she says. “If drivers were determined to be employees, Uber would owe them a safe and hostile-free work environment. That would mean they would have to do certain things employers do, such as provide non-discrimination training.”
Dubal herself has been through a number of Uber trainings and says she’s never heard mention of non-discrimination policies.
“It’s weird because they do train drivers to do other things, like hold the door open for a passenger,” she says. “But why not also make sure they don’t engage in racial slurs? Why is there not a zero tolerance toward racial discrimination?”
Last October, results of a study by researchers at three universities concluded that drivers for Uber and Lyft regularly discriminate against passengers based on their race.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington sent passengers on nearly 1,500 rides across Seattle and Boston and found that drivers disproportionately cancelled on riders with black-sounding names, even though the company penalizes drivers for cancelling frequently. In Seattle, longer waiting times were observed for African American passengers — as much as a 35 percent increase.
That led many to push the companies to anonymize the information that both driver and passenger receive about the other on the app before a ride begins. But neither company did.
According to Lyft spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna, 66 percent of the company’s drivers identify with a minority group.
Uber did not provide that information.
After reporting her driver to Uber, Ocon wrote to Univision through the Documenting Hate project, which is tracking hate crimes and harassment since the election, to share her story.
She says she feels Uber’s response was inadequate; Ocon had hoped that Uber would ban the driver from working with the company.
“I was hoping for something more,” she says. “This man is representing them. He’s their face. He’s providing a service.”
Hendrick tells Univision that riders or drivers can reach back out to the company at any time if they feel the action taken was inadequate.
In recent months, Uber has also come under fire for its response to allegations of sexual assault of both drivers and passengers, as well as accusations of sexism and sexual harassment internally.
“The fascinating thing about Uber is that they operate in an environment that they have actively worked to make unsafe, by suing against regulations that have long been in place,” Dubal says. “It’s a company based on the idea that no one should have much responsibility.”
For her part, Ocon is no longer using Uber to get to work. She and her husband recently got a car.