On March 3, 2018, Tedros, a rideshare driver in Sacramento, received an email from Uber notifying him that the rideshare giant would deduct $100 from his next paycheck.
Five months prior, the police at San Francisco’s International Airport wrote him up for a permit violation while he was waiting to pick up a passenger. But rather than serving Tedros the ticket, as a police officer normally would, the airport issued the citation directly to Uber without Tedros’ knowledge.
“We realize this likely will come as a surprise, but per your agreement with Uber, we must collect the violation amount from you,” the email from Uber, reviewed by Motherboard, reads. “The violation amount will be deducted from your next pay statement.”
It wasn’t the first or last time Tedros had his paycheck slashed due to a citation from San Francisco’s airport police that had occurred months prior without his knowledge.
“I’ve had four citations of $100 each deducted from my pay. Sometimes this means I’ve had negative earnings and no money to pay for gas,” Tedros told Motherboard on the phone in July. “I’ve called Uber and they said ‘we can’t do anything.’ There was no way for me to contest the citation.”
Tedros is one of thousands of rideshare drivers in the United States who have had this problem. Contracts between Uber and airports allow for millions of dollars each year to be funneled out of their paychecks into the hands of airports, which are typically owned by local governments and publicly-owned airport authorities. Between 2016 and 2019, rideshare drivers paid $3.8 million in fines to Los Angeles World Airports, the airport authority that owns and operates Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), according to data collected from a public records request by the Mobile Workers Alliance, an advocacy group which represents gig workers in Southern California. Within that time period, the airport authority issued 11,117 citations to drivers, according to the same source.
Experts say this system is a violation of drivers' Constitutionally-enshrined due process rights, which say that the government cannot take legal action against a person without notifying them of the charges or action and offering the person an opportunity to present their case before a neutral party. Under normal circumstances, drivers in the United States have the right to dispute parking and traffic citations in a court, and often do so successfully.
“What’s happening is drivers get wages taken away as a result of tickets that they don’t know why they got and have no opportunity to contest,” Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings and gig economy expert, told Motherboard. “I think it’s a due process issue; the government is taking away their money without them understanding why. It seems fundamentally unfair, and I’d say the airport is at fault. Why wouldn’t an Uber driver get a chance to contest a ticket like you and I would?”
Annie, an Uber driver in San Francisco, who asked to be identified by her first name only because she feared retaliation from Uber, said she received a $100 deduction from her earnings in December 2019 for stopping in a pedestrian zone at San Francisco’s airport but had no recollection of the alleged event, because it occurred in September, three months prior.
“The only notification I got about it was when Uber took my money. No notifications in the mail or from the city or airport. Nothing,” she said. “I learned about it because I checked my account at the end of a day of driving and there was $0. I was under such stress at the time, I just thought, ‘Well this is another way I’m getting screwed by Uber.’”
Uber declined to comment on why it handles citations this way. Mobile Workers Alliance said it has no documented cases of drivers' wages being automatically taken by Lyft to pay for citations at airports. Drivers said Lyft absorbs fees for tickets issued at San Francisco’s airport, but the company did not respond to a request for comment, and we're unsure if that policy applies more broadly at other airports.
Doug Yakel, a spokesperson for San Francisco’s airport told Motherboard that while rideshare companies are “afforded a review and appeals process,” drivers are not.
“SFO enters into a permit with TNCs, not individual drivers,” Yankel said. “As a result, citations for any rule violations are issued to the TNC directly, not drivers. Therefore, SFO does not collect any funds directly from drivers.”
“Each TNC sets their own policies on how citations are managed with their drivers,” he continued. “We understand that some TNCs absorb the citation fees, while others pass this cost through to the driver.”
Uber drivers told Motherboard that major airports in California, including SFO (which is owned and operated by the city of San Francisco), LAX, and San Diego International Airport, regularly fine drivers. They say they are never able to contest these fines and that they see the fines deducted from their paychecks months later. Common reasons for citations at airports include not displaying an Uber placard, stopping for too long in pedestrian zones, and parking outside designated areas for rideshare drivers.
In some instances, rideshare drivers in Los Angeles say they’ve been deactivated for citations they could not contest.
“Receiving a citation from [Los Angeles World Airports] may…result in the transportation network company [TNC] unilaterally deciding to deactivate a driver’s account, effectively resulting in the equivalent of being terminated from one’s job,” drivers with the Mobile Workers Alliance wrote in a letter to airport leadership in June demanding the airport implement an appeals process for citations, complaints, and financial penalties levied against them.
In the letter, the rideshare drivers go on to contend that the heavy policing and surveillance of rideshare drivers at LAX places drivers at the risk of discrimination and police brutality. (Lyft claims that 79 percent of its drivers in Los Angeles identify as racial minorities.)
Rideshare companies deduct wages from drivers for airport citations thanks to a provision in their contracts with airports. For example, Los Angeles’s airport authority reserves the right to levy fines against drivers such as a $200 fine for “failure to adhere to TNC Driver, TNC Vehicle, Requirements” and a $300 fine for “failure to accurately report a TNC Trip” in its contract with rideshare companies.
Robert Moreno, an Uber driver based in Tijuana, Mexico, an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United who runs an online group for Latino rideshare drivers near the U.S.-Mexico border, says drivers have posted about receiving citations from police at San Diego International Airport without the opportunity to contest them.
“Normally citations are handed out physically or sent to a driver’s address, but that doesn’t happen at San Diego’s airport,” said Moreno. “The airport authorities are saying Uber gave them permission to skip the process and go straight to wage garnishment. They don’t give us a chance to make a payment plan or fight the citation. A governing body shouldn’t be able to delete your rights just because they’re in a special contract with Uber.”
Rideshare drivers in San Diego are in the process of filing a public records request with San Diego International Airport for more information about its contracts with Lyft and Uber. The airport did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.
Beyond these citations, airports profit massively off the labor of rideshare drivers. Los Angeles’s airport authority charges Uber drivers $4 per pick-up and drop-off from the airport—trip fees that are subsidized by passengers. In 2018 alone, rideshare drivers conducted 8.9 million rides to and from Los Angeles airports, generating tens of millions in revenue for the airport authority. (San Francisco’s airport charges $5 per ride, and collected on more than 10 million drop offs and pick ups in 2018.)
LAX did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
Joshua Browder, the founder of DoNotPay, a free chatbot that has helped drivers in the US and UK successfully appeal more than 300,000 parking ticket citations, says contesting airport tickets is one of the most common reasons Uber and Lyft drivers use his services.
“The government uses these citations as a source of revenue, and in this case, airports are issuing a tax on rideshare drivers,” Browder told Motherboard. “It’s well known that rideshare drivers don’t make much money. The fact they have to pay these tickets while working very hard is crippling. It’s an unfairness that the government places the responsibility on the most vulnerable members of society.
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“[The tickets themselves are unfair], but another level of this is that sometimes drivers aren’t even breaking the rules, yet airports can issue tickets and drivers can’t contest them later,” he added.
Motherboard spoke to rideshare drivers and organizers in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Sacramento who say they are allowed to contest airport tickets, and do not see fines deducted from their earnings.