Uber, which claimed to make a profit in the third quarter if you squint your eyes and ignore the billions of dollars it continues to hemorrhage on a quarterly basis, is facing a Department of Justice lawsuit targeting yet another of its dubious business practices.
The feds are charging Uber in Northern California district court with violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by charging “wait time” fees to passengers with disabilities who require more time to enter hailed vehicles. The issue at hand is simple: People who dilly-dally in certain cities where Uber operates may be charged penalties for keeping their drivers waiting (after two to five minutes, depending on the kind of ride). The DOJ claims that Uber didn’t make reasonable accommodations for riders with disabilities who need more time or assistance to get into a taxi, such as by folding down a wheelchair.
The federal complaint contains two accounts of Uber riders with disabilities, named Passenger A and Passenger B in the suit. The first passenger, who has quadriplegia and regularly had a nursing assistant help her pack up her wheelchair for Uber rides, alleged in August 2020 she had noticed she “had been charged a wait time fee for every ride she had taken with Uber since she relocated to Louisville in May 2020.” After multiple attempts to reach support, she said in the suit, an Uber customer service agent informed her the fees were automatic and could not be stopped for any reason; she says she was never refunded. Passenger B, a wheelchair user, alleged that in September 2018 they realized they had been charged wait fees for multiple rides since January 2018. The suit alleges that Uber refunded only some of Passenger B’s fees before they were told they had hit the “maximum amount of refunds.”
The DOJ wants Uber to pay fines and damages to riders with disabilities who were charged the extra fees, as well as to modify its wait fee policy. In a statement on the agency’s website, DOJ assistant attorney general for the civil rights division said, “People with disabilities deserve equal access to all areas of community life, including the private transportation services provided by companies like Uber.”
In a statement to Gizmodo via email, Uber spokesperson Matt Kallman said that the fees were charged to all users but werenever intended to apply to those who had a valid need for more time. Kallman wrote that the company “had been in active discussions with the DOJ about how to address any concerns or confusion before this surprising and disappointing lawsuit.”
Kallman added that it had always been Uber policy to refund the fees “for disabled riders whenever they alerted us that they were charged,” and that as of last week users who certify themselves as disabled have such fees “automatically waived.” Uber “fundamentally [disagrees] that our policies violate the ADA,” he concluded.
While ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft do provide an alternate choice of transportation for people with disabilities, access to those services hasn’t always been found to be equal. Equal rights activists have consistently alleged ride-hailing services don’t make enough of an effort to provide accessible vehicles to the public as required by law. As the Post noted, a 2018 report by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest found dedicated wheelchair-accessible vehicles on Uber and Lyft had wait times four times longer than others, with the report stating the services were practically “useless.” A 2019 lawsuit alleged a total absence of wheelchair-accessible Uber vehicles in Pittsburgh; a federal court refused to dismiss a similar lawsuit brought in DC earlier this year.