Uber can add racism to its long list of corporate culture failings, say lawyers representing one of its software engineers who killed himself last year.
Joseph Thomas took a job at the taxi-hailing app in 2016, turning down an offer from Apple in the process, and moved from Atlanta to San Francisco, in the US, with his wife and two kids.
But just five months later – having complained to his family about the job's pressure and stress, talked to psychiatrists about having panic attacks, and talked about racism at the tech bro company – his wife found the 33-year-old dead in his car, having shot himself.
She and her father-in-law had pleaded with Thomas to quit the job but he insisted he could not leave the $170,000-a-year position, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Now, she – Zecole Thomas – has filed a workers' compensation claim against Uber, alleging that the work environment contributed to his breakdown. The app maker has so far refused to pay out, with its insurer noting that since Thomas had worked at the company less than six months he was not entitled to compensation for psychiatric issues.
But Thomas' lawyers are arguing that the six-month rule does not apply under California law if the distress is caused by "extraordinary employment condition." The case – number ADJ10695460 – is still in its early stages, with an administrative judge last looking into the matter on April 14.
This is far from the first time that Uber has been either criticized or sued for its toxic work culture.
Earlier this year, Susan Fowler published a long series of eye-popping accusations against Uber in a post titled "Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber." In the post, she described a sexist work culture even worse than people had imagined, including the detail that on her very first day on the team her manager propositioned her.
She complained and was told that she could either stay and expect a bad review or move to a different team. She claims she was told that there would be no punishment for her manager since he was a "high performer" and it was his "first offense." She subsequently discovered that numerous other women had complained about the same manager.
"We all lived under fear that our teams would be dissolved, there would be another re-org, and we'd have to start on yet another new project with an impossible deadline," Fowler wrote. She asked for a transfer out – and was refused. She asked again when she received her next performance review – only to be told her score had been subsequently marked down and so she was not eligible to move. "I was stuck where I was," she said.
The exact same complaint was made by engineer Joseph Thomas both to his family and the two psychiatrists he visited at their urging: his boss hated him, he was treated poorly and yet he was stuck in the job.
In a Facebook chat with an old friend one month before his suicide, Thomas wrote: "The sad thing is this place has broken me to the point where I don't have the strength to look for another job."
His wife's lawyer, Richard Richardson, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Thomas also felt he could not talk about the issues at work. "We think it was stress and harassment induced by his job, between him being one of the few African Americans there, working around the clock and the culture of Uber," he said. "And he couldn't talk about it to anyone because of nondisclosure agreements."
Last month, Uber published its first diversity report and even by Silicon Valley standards it stands out as a white, male environment. There were just 8.8 per cent African-Americans in the company; and women accounted for just over a third of employees, falling to 11.3 per cent in tech leadership roles.
That also supports the complaints by some Uber investors, who wrote an open letter about its corporate culture being "plagued by disrespect, exclusionary cliques, lack of diversity, and tolerance for bullying and harassment of every form."
That letter and Fowler's post led Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to order a workplace review by none other than former Obama Administration attorney general Eric Holder. The review will look at "specific issues relating to the work place environment ... as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly." The review has yet to be published.
As for Thomas' case, Uber refused to allow his boss to be deposed, so the lawyers appealed to the judge overseeing the workers compensation claim, who then ordered Uber to make the supervisor available for questioning. The claim is for just under three-quarters of a million dollars, with a large part paid out in weekly checks to Thomas' two sons, aged seven and nine.
In the meantime, Uber outlined its real priorities when it announced plans to run a fleet of flying cars. According to the company Tuesday, city officials in Dallas and Dubai have agreed to allow tests for cars landing and taking off vertically in their cities by 2020. ®