Uber is using drivers’ wages to pay airport fines… without telling drivers

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You read that right. 

If an airport official cites an Uber driver for a traffic infraction, Uber pays the fine and then deducts the fine from the driver’s pay.

Most drivers don’t have a chance to defend themselves, and some have no recollection of the incidents in question. In many cases, the incidents may never have happened at all.

We certainly don’t think that’s right, and we’re pretty sure you won’t either. In this post, we’ll explain what we know about this puzzling situation by covering the issues it raises.

  • The perils of airport pickups and drops
  • How Uber’s deals with airports skip over due process 
  • Who profits? Who pays?
  • What can drivers do to stop this?

The downside of airport pickups and drops

Back before COVID consumed us (when things were normal), the average driver would say that airport runs constituted a large part of their revenues. Yet long, lucrative rides to and from the terminals don’t come without risks. 

There aren’t many drivers around who don’t have a story about getting cited, scolded, and/or yelled at by surly airport cops and dispatchers.

With no-go zones, commercial curbs, no parking areas, pedestrian-only sections, Uber decals that come unstuck, and speed limits that can be exceeded even while you ride your brakes, it is hard NOT to break some kind of rule at most airports.

So what happens when you get on the wrong side of airport protocol? In most cases, you receive a citation. If you decide to admit to the infraction, you’ll pay a fine and be done with it. If you’re absolutely sure you didn’t do anything wrong, then you go to court, tell your side of the story, and hope to get the case dismissed and the fine refunded. 

At least, that’s what you’d think. But for drivers working at several airports, something different is going on… something that’s not quite on the up and up.

How Uber’s agreements with airports skip over due process

Specifically, this has happened to drivers working at LAX, San Francisco, and San Diego airports. Here’s the scenario …

Drivers mysteriously received notifications from Uber informing them that they had committed an infraction at the airport. The notification made it clear that there was no need for the driver to do anything, including mount a defense. Uber was simply letting the driver know that the citation was taken care of… and the amount of the fine would be taken from their wages.

How would you react if you got that message from Uber? At first you might think, “Oh good, Uber’s paying my fine for me.” But when you got to the part about money being taken from your pay? Your reaction would likely be anything but positive. 

Even worse, suppose you were never told about the alleged infraction in the first place? Maybe the ticket-writing official said you did something wrong, but you’re absolutely positive you didn’t… and now, the $100 you were counting on for gas money was used to pay a bogus citation.

This happened to a driver named Tedros—not just once, but multiple times. According to a July 22, 2020 article on the website VICE, he got in touch with Uber to ask why it happened. He received a response saying that per his agreement with Uber, he was responsible for all traffic citations. Since the airport sent the citation to Uber with his license number attached to it, the cost of the fine was coming out of his wages. “There was no way for me to contest the citation,” says Tedros.

After you’re done getting fired up about that, you might start to wonder what right an airport official has to issue a citation without talking to the driver, stating what the infraction was, and giving the driver a chance to appear before an impartial party in order to dispute the charge. Yeah. We wonder that too.

Who profits, who pays?

This all comes down to contractual agreements that Uber makes with airports. Airport officials are allowed to cite drivers and then send Uber the bills—and according to the VICE article, the fees collected are quite substantial. The article cites data collected by the Mobile Workers Alliance, a SoCal advocacy group that represents gig workers. The data show that at LAX alone, the Los Angeles World Airports Authority issued 11,117 citations to drivers, and collected $3.8 million dollars from drivers between 2016 and 2018. Uber, complying with their agreement with the authority, deducted the fees from drivers’ payments.

This isn’t the only way airport authorities siphon money from the rideshare business. In Los Angeles, the airport authority charges Uber drivers $4 per ride, whether the ride is a pickup or drop-off. These fees are normally paid by the passengers.

In 2018 alone, there were 8.9 million rideshare trips involving LA airports, resulting in almost $36,000,000 in fees landing back in the authority’s coffers. San Francisco charges $5 per ride, and had more than 10 million rideshare trips involving their airport facility in 2018, making their take around $50 million.

That’s a lot of dough.

Uber also profits from the airport rides. The longer distance and extended time these airport trips normally involve add up, and so do the company’s profits. And yes, drivers benefit from the airport rides they provide. However, when they receive citations, we don’t think they should be presumed guilty and have their pay docked for the fines.

To be fair, Uber and other rideshare companies pay airport authorities for the privilege of doing business. But we can easily make the case that these costs are, at least partially, passed on. 

When we examine the airport ride (and citation) dynamic closely, and answer the question we posed at the start of this section, here’s what we find:

  • The airports profit
  • Uber profits
  • Drivers profit—and drivers pay
  • Passengers pay

Where, in this dynamic, do Uber and the airports pay? We can’t seem to figure out under what circumstances that might occur.

Please understand, we’re not saying that drivers shouldn’t have to pay fines when they commit infractions. We are saying that drivers deserve the chance to defend themselves if and when they do get cited and fined. In the case of these “phantom citations,” where drivers are totally unaware of the situation, it’s even more important that they at least hear what they supposedly did wrong.

By Uber striking this deal with airports, whereby they can just admit to an infraction on a driver’s behalf and then dock the driver’s pay for the fine, they’re doing more than just being unfair. They’re actually trampling on the drivers’ rights to due process under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. “I think it’s a due process issue; the government is taking away their money without them understanding why,” says Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings and gig economy expert.

Fortunately, this isn’t happening everywhere. VICE reporters spoke with drivers in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Sacramento, who said they are able to seek legal recourse, and that Uber doesn’t automatically deduct the fine from their wages. 

What’s the situation in your city? Comment below and tell us what you know.

Can drivers stop this?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much individual drivers can do to stop Uber from taking money from your pay for fines, even if you were never informed you committed an infraction.

When you sign up to be a driver with Uber, you agree to the company’s Terms and Conditions. Yes, there is a ton of verbiage in that agreement, and we all skipped over at least some part of it. But now, read this tiny section closely. It tells you what Uber’s “rights” are with regard to tickets, citations, and other such unpleasantries. It doesn’t say much about your rights.

Deductions; Set-off​. You also agree that Fares, incentives, and any gratuities may be used to satisfy a court order of garnishment against you; to reimburse us for citations, tickets, or other administrative penalties or fines assessed by governmental entities arising from your conduct; or to reimburse us for any erroneous overpayment to you.

Yet the situation isn’t completely hopeless. There are steps drivers can take to circumvent the maddening process of Uber taking your money without your consent.

  • Know the ropes. Each airport has certain rules that all drivers must follow. Don’t know yours? You’re in luck, because Gridwise has them for every major US city. Visit the Gridwise blog’s airport section for current information about the rules, boundaries and obligations that apply in your town. When you know the rules, you’re far less likely to unknowingly break them.
  • Petition Uber. You can always contact Uber Support. Placing a phone call will normally initiate a written exchange that you can use as documentation. There’s a chance that they’ll listen to your side of the story, and maybe even put the money back into your account. Who knows, if enough drivers do this, maybe it will motivate Uber to change their agreements with airports. 
  • Get a dashcam. No matter what you say was the case at the time of an alleged infraction, it’s still a “He said, she said” situation—and without proof, it can be impossible to prove your case. Having video and audio of the exchange between you and the officer involved will add weight to your argument, and possibly settle the dispute, if you get the opportunity to contest the ticket.
  • Consider legal action. While it’s probably going to cost more to secure a lawyer than it will to simply pay the fine, there are principles here worth fighting for. If you can get several drivers to create a class action, you might have some success. You may not be able to reverse fines or erase infractions, but you might get Uber to change its policy about taking money directly out of driver accounts.
  • Get active with drivers’ rights groups. As situations like this arise, as well as the contractor vs. employee controversy and COVID-19 safety issues, it’s more important than ever for drivers to work together. Groups all over the world are dedicated to getting fair treatment for drivers. Join one near you, and ask what you can do, together, to stop the unfair airport fine practice.

Of all these actions, “know the ropes” is probably most important. 

Remember to consult the airport section of the Gridwise blog to discover what you need to know about driving at your airport. Also, the Uber app has information about your airport rules and regulations. You probably had to sign off on those at some point, but if you didn’t scrutinize them then, do it now.Information for rideshare and delivery drivers is what Gridwise is all about. Make sure you download the app to track your earnings, get airport arrival and departure information, weather conditions, events, and links to driver discounts and special offers. Also, make sure you catch the rest of the articles on the Gridwise blog, and super-informative videos on our YouTube channel!

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