Opinion: It’s Probably Legal, but Not Too Cool What Uber Did to This Black, Single Mother

Not the most scandalous thing to come out of Uber, rather, an exercise in poor taste

uber
(Image: File)

The Washington Post ran a compelling story on an African American single mother who is struggling financially, like many Americans. The article focused on contributing factors that were keeping—and even burying—this woman further into debt and poverty.

One factor is the lack of paid leave for new parents in the workforce. As the article points out, “[…]the United States is the only industrialized nation not to guarantee any paid time off to new parents.” The subject of the article had just delivered a newborn.

Another factor that contributed to her precarious financial situation, oddly enough, is Uber. The woman became an Uber driver to supplement an already low income as a home healthcare worker.

However, she didn’t have the required tool to drive for Uber—a car. The ridesharing service does have a solution for that. In a partnership with rental car company Enterprise, Uber drivers can rent Enterprise cars, and then the rental fee is automatically deducted by Uber from the driver’s fares.

The cost to rent is $215 per week, with a $350 required deposit. Even if an Uber driver makes enough weekly to cover the cost, it doesn’t factor in gas, and as mentioned in The Washington Post article, the woman was barely able to cover the week’s rental fee along with gas.

Instead of alleviating her debt, the Enterprise/Uber program dug her in deeper. She told the reporter covering the story that she fell behind in her rental car payment, owing about $1400.

The Washington Post reporter did what any credible journalist does; she fact-checked the story. The reporter called Uber and asked if this woman was indeed in debt.

Here is what shocked me from the article:

“Uber, which looked into Warren’s account for The Washington Post, said she began missing rental payments after her fourth week of driving.”

I couldn’t believe Uber would disclose one of its driver’s financial information—just like that—even to a journalist.

To be clear, Uber told me that they did not disclose specifics of how much in debt the woman in The Washington Post’s article was. An Uber representative stated via email, “To clarify, we didn’t disclose the debt. Ms. Warren [the subject of the article] did; we could only confirm that she was a customer and had fallen behind on payments, as she indicated to the journalist.

As a journalist, I wondered could I call up American Express and obtain any information about someone’s credit account? Here’s what Amex responded when I asked, “No, we do not disclose any information regarding our Card Members’ account(s) with media.  We are committed to protecting the privacy of our customers’ information and this would be a violation of our customer privacy statement.”

It turns out, because of the nature of Uber’s business, it looks as though it’s perfectly legal for them to do this, according to some experts I spoke with.

Uber is not a credit card company and not subject to consumer privacy laws for that industry. “The difference here between American Express and Uber is that the mother is technically an independent contractor, and she is being treated as a business and not a private citizen. Uber’s driver privacy statement stated they may provide a third-party any information relating to a driver. However, in the credit world, creditors are prohibited by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to disclose any consumer debts to third parties,” says Mike Willis, Jr., CEO of Credit Glory.

Amber Berry, CFEI– a certified financial education instructor and a certified money coach, has a finance blog, Feel Good Finances. She says it’s an all-around tricky situation, citing three reasons:

“I’m not sure if there was a clause in her contract about her not disclosing the terms, which could nullify any protection she had,” she said.

“Since Uber and Enterprise work together on this deal, Enterprise might be the actual debtor in this case. ”

Berry also pointed out,”They did not disclose the information with the intent to collect the debt back, since the media contacted them and not the other way around. But still, the media is not considered to be an approved entity for sharing that kind of information.”

Of course, just because Uber could, doesn’t mean it should—especially since the company has been awash in bad press.

Berry agrees. “Regardless, I agree that it’s a really awful thing for Uber for do. It’s in poor taste for a such a large company to not have better control of the public relations, especially regarding the way they handle challenges with their employees. But going off of the FTC guidelines and assuming that Uber is the actual debtor, they should not have confirmed anything.”

A terse, “We don’t comment on our driver’s finances,” in response to the media inquiry would have been a lot classier.