The US government sued Uber this week, claiming the ride-hailing app giant unfairly charges disabled riders waiting fees if they need extra time to get into vehicles.
A surcharge is added on top of a ride fare if a passenger takes longer than two minutes to enter a vehicle after it arrives. Uber added wait time fees in some US cities in 2016 before expanding the policy across the country.
These fees, however, discriminate against people with mobility or visibility issues, federal prosecutors argue. In one example in the government's lawsuit [PDF], the DoJ refers to “Passenger A,” who has spinal cord injuries and needs a wheelchair to get around. When her Uber arrived, her wheelchair needed to be folded away into the vehicle, and a nursing assistant helped her into the car. The whole process took about five minutes.
The passenger noticed she was charged extra wait time fees. When she moved to Kentucky to take part in a clinical study and rehabilitation program me at a university, she took about ten Uber trips a week to get from her apartment to the facility and back. Those surcharges quickly racked up.
Although Uber has waived the fee for disabled riders in some cases if they complain, the surcharge is automatically added and drivers cannot control this. By doing so, the company has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prosecutors alleged. ADA was passed as a civil rights law by Congress in 1990.
“In violation of the ADA, Uber has failed to (1) ensure adequate vehicle boarding time for passengers with disabilities; (2) ensure equitable fares for passengers with disabilities; and (3) make reasonable modifications to its policies and practices of imposing wait time fees as applied to passengers who, because of disability, require more time to board the vehicle,” the paperwork stated.
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The US Department of Justice wants Uber to scrap its wait time fees for disabled passengers, to comply with ADA, and wants the Silicon Valley giant to cough up damages to those who have forked out for surcharges, as well as handing over a fine.
“People with disabilities deserve equal access to all areas of community life, including the private transportation services provided by companies like Uber,” said Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney at the Justice Dept's civil rights division.
“This lawsuit seeks to bring Uber into compliance with the mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act while sending a powerful message that Uber cannot penalize passengers with disabilities simply because they need more time to get into a car. Uber and other companies that provide transportation services must ensure equal access for all people, including those with disabilities.”
An Uber spokesperson told The Register the average wait time fee charged to riders last year was “less than 60 cents” per trip, and said wheelchair-accessible trips on Uber and Uber Assist trips do not have any wait time fees by default. These services, however, are only available in “select markets.”
“Wait time fees are charged to all riders to compensate drivers after two minutes of waiting, but were never intended for riders who are ready at their designated pickup location but need more time to get into the car," the spokesperson said.
We had been in active discussions with the Dept of Justice about how to address any concerns or confusion before this surprising and disappointing lawsuit
"We recognize that many riders with disabilities depend on Uber for their transportation needs, which is why we had been in active discussions with the DOJ about how to address any concerns or confusion before this surprising and disappointing lawsuit.
“It has been our policy to refund wait time fees for disabled riders whenever they alerted us that they were charged. After a recent change last week, now any rider who certifies they are disabled will have fees automatically waived. We fundamentally disagree that our policies violate the ADA and will keep improving our products to support everyone’s ability to easily move around their communities.”
Over in Brit land
Meanwhile, across the pond in the UK, for the first time since 2017, Uber is increasing ride fares by 10 per cent supposedly in an attempt to woo more drivers to its platform by offering higher payouts, and to counter increasing demand for the service. Fees may go up as high as 25 per cent to airports during peak times, according to the Evening Standard. The UK Supreme Court ruled in February that UK Uber drivers should be classified as employees and not contractors. ®