Karim was spending time in Vermont during the July Fourth weekend of 2021 when he received an email from Uber. His account as an Uber driver was being permanently deactivated for violating the company’s community guidelines, the email said, but it did not give him any specific reason.
“Overnight I come back from vacation broke and next thing I’m deactivated,” he said. Karim, who is an immigrant from Bangladesh, had been driving since 2017 when his account was cancelled. “It was like a slap in the face and it was one of the most demoralizing moments of my life.”
Karim will join several hundred Uber and Lyft drivers to launch a 12-hour strike at LaGuardia Airport this Sunday, demanding an end to what drivers say are unfair deactivations. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), the union representing the drivers, say they will demand the city step in to regulate if Uber and Lyft refuse.
“Deactivations are really rampant, becoming a systematic problem where many drivers can lose their income without any notice,” said NYTWA President Bhairavi Desai. “For drivers, they are left with car loans to pay off while losing their income.”
Under the current guidelines at Uber and Lyft current guidelines, a driver could be deactivated for a variety of reasons, such as vehicle issues, failed background checks, fraud, discrimination, harassment, or poor ratings. Uber states that, when possible, they will alert a driver if they are at risk of deactivation. However, drivers claim the company often deactivates accounts without prior warning, something Uber has admitted to in the past.
Once deactivated, drivers can directly plead their case with either Lyft or Uber, but without an independent third party or any legal representation, many drivers say they don’t stand a chance of winning their jobs back. “To be deactivated by someone who’s pulling a string, hiding behind a laptop, I don’t know what I did, who accused me, whether it was a lie or truth,” Karim said.
After several failed attempts to recover his account, Karim gave up fighting Uber and switched over to Lyft. But as a new Lyft driver, he didn’t get the most lucrative rides and found it hard to earn a living. Still, he kept working for Lyft until last month when he received yet another email stating his Lyft account would be deactivated. When he inquired why he was told for security reasons they could not say.
In 2015, Bangladeshi immigrant Dee was deactivated by Lyft without being given a reason other than a customer had complained. Ever since, he has driven solely for Uber. Last month, believing enough time had passed, Dee tried Lyft again but discovered the company wouldn’t reactivate his account. “They wouldn’t tell me what happened when I reached out to them,” he said. “They said the decision remains final.”
Many drivers work for more than one app, so a deactivation on one app can take a big toll on their income, Dee said. He will join Sunday’s protest. “There should be due process and I would love for an appeal,” he said. “To have a one-on-one with a customer as to what I did to warrant a deactivation.”
Dee also preferred to go by just their first name due to fear of repercussions from Uber and Lyft.
In some situations, certain Uber drivers may be eligible to plead their case with the Uber-run Driver deactivation review panel, although Uber ultimately determines the eligibility of a driver on a case-by-case basis. The program was developed with the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), a controversial union that receives funding from Uber.
When Felix Nunez, 49, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, reached out to the IDG last month after wrangling with Uber to restore his account, he claimed the IDG failed to support him. “IDG didn’t help,” he said, adding that he was abruptly deactivated by Uber in 2017 and has been struggling to make ends meet to support his wife and two kids ever since.
Karim also claimed a similar experience with the IDG, saying, “There is no such thing as an appeal. I even reached out to IDG and they didn’t do anything.”
Desai said she believes that IDG is a company union that aims to undercut the NYTWA legislative efforts. “It seems that the IDG was sent in to prevent any New York City law that would give drivers real rights around deactivation and to undermine our efforts for a bill that would establish actual rights,” she said.
The IDG and Uber did not respond to Documented’s request for comment. In Lyft’s response to Documented, the company stated that they take the safety of passengers and drivers extremely seriously. If drivers are deactivated they could ask for the decision to be reviewed. Lyft stressed having a rigorous internal investigation process and when they remove a driver from the platform, it’s for the safety of the community.
Drivers in New York are not alone in demanding that ride-share apps abolish unfair deactivations but are joining the growing chorus of Uber and Lyft workers across, not only the country but around the globe. The International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers, a coalition of app-based drivers from sixteen countries, has launched an international campaign to stop unfair deactivations.
Last December, drivers in Chicago rallied outside O’Hare International Airport demanding an end to deactivations. In 2021, after persistent organizing by workers, the Seattle City Council enacted the Driver Deactivation Rights Ordinance which gives drivers the right to challenge unfair deactivations. The new law also established the country’s first Driver Resolution Center, where drivers are able to access education, and outreach services as well as provide free legal representation to fight deactivations.
Hoping to go even further than Seattle’s model, the NYTWA is organizing a campaign to pressure the city to pass legislation barring ride-share apps from deactivating drivers without a legitimate reason or sufficient evidence. Drivers would be given 14 days’ notice before being deactivated and if they were deactivated, the proposed law would give drivers the right to file a complaint directly with the city, not a driver center like Seattle’s. If found to be unfairly deactivated, Uber and Lyft drivers would be entitled to return to work with back pay.
Currently the union is working with Council member Shekar Krishnan on drafting the legislation. They are also pushing for support from the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), who told Documented they were in support of the drivers.
Without any apps to drive with, Karim was forced to take two jobs, one at a bank and another for a corporate transportation company. Despite the obvious financial hardship he’s in, Karim attempts to put a philosophical spin on his current situation.
“God’s the ultimate giver, if they take away from me, no problem,” he said. “I will continue with my life without Uber but they have definitely put a pebble in my shoe.”