MOVING BACKWARD

A driver alleged an Uber rep assaulted him. Uber offered $400 to make it go away

On Jan. 31, Aaron Johnson, 53, drove to Uber’s driver service center in Salt Lake City, Utah, to sort out a rider complaint. Johnson, a military veteran, had received almost entirely perfect five-star reviews from passengers and he feared the complaint, that he had rolled his eyes, would hurt his Uber driver rating.

The rider complaint turned out to be the least of his problems that day. During his visit to the service center, known as a Greenlight Hub, Johnson alleges that one of Uber’s reps became irate, asked him to leave, and, when Johnson attempted to take a photo of him, seized his wrist and wrested away his mobile phone.

Johnson later reported the incident to Uber, which ultimately offered him $400 if he signed a contract releasing Uber from all claims and requiring him to keep both the settlement and initial incident confidential. Johnson refused.

Uber confirmed to Quartz that a dispute occurred between Johnson and an employee at its Greenlight Hub in Salt Lake City earlier this year. “We regret to hear that Mr. Johnson was unhappy with his support experience. That was not our intent,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “We always aim to do right by our customers, and we know there is always room for improvement.”

While disputes occur periodically between Uber’s riders and drivers, a physical altercation between a driver and Uber employee is rare if not unheard of. Uber operates a diffuse network of about 200 Greenlight service centers in the US to support the roughly 900,000 drivers it had as of May. These centers are staffed by Uber employees and offer in-person support on issues ranging from rider complaints to local licensing requirements. For many drivers, a Greenlight Hub is likely the only place they will interact with an Uber employee.

Uber has spent the past year working to improve its relationship with drivers, many of whom feel underpaid and undervalued by the company. In 2017, it added tipping and beefed up phone support, among other changes, as part of a six-month push to improve the driver experience. Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick had a poor reputation among drivers, made worse in February 2017 when leaked video footage showed him berating a driver who complained about low pay. Kalanick was pushed out of the CEO job last June.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO since August 2017, has made reforming company culture and signaling appreciation for drivers a top priority. Uber recently introduced a new driver app designed to address some of the most common driver pain points, like making earnings data easier to access. Last week it launched a new ad campaign, “Moving Forward,” in which Khosrowshai pledged to listen to drivers and change how Uber does business “from top to bottom.”

Uber has worked hard to court military vets like Johnson, who also receives disability compensation from the Department of Veteran Affairs for a service-connected injury. Like many drivers, Johnson had his complaints about Uber—he didn’t like Kalanick and the pay was low—but was optimistic things would improve under Khosrowshahi. His experience at the Greenlight Hub made him doubt that much had changed. “Same Uber, same corporate culture,” he said.

Johnson went to the Greenlight Hub that day in January after a friend, also an Uber driver, suggested that a company rep could help him sort out the complaint in person. He started out speaking with one staff member, but says a man who gave his name as Levi and identified himself as the team lead inserted himself into the conversation. “You don’t have to drive for Uber if you don’t like Uber,” Levi eventually interrupted, according to Johnson. “We don’t need you.”

Johnson says Levi asked him to leave, at which point Johnson says he pulled out his phone to take a picture of Levi so he could complain to Uber about the behavior. Before he could, he says, Levi strode around the table and grabbed the phone from his hand.

Johnson claims the rep refused to return the phone until he walked out of the Greenlight Hub, which was located in a conference room of a Hilton Garden Inn, and said loudly in the hotel’s lobby that he had been assaulted. After that, he says, Levi came into the lobby and dropped the phone at his feet. Johnson picked it up and called the police.

In their report on the incident, the Salt Lake City police found that the dispute “did not appear to meet the elements necessary for an assault or theft charge.” They told Johnson he could speak with the city prosecutor if he wished to pursue the matter. Johnson said he did, and that the prosecutor declined to press charges.

In a written statement to the police, Levi contested Johnson’s account. Levi said he “gently, emphasis on gently, pushed the phone away” and then immediately tried to hand it back. Reached by phone, he declined to comment further to Quartz, which is withholding his last name.

Johnson also called Uber’s driver support line to report the incident. On Feb. 3, Johnson spoke with an internal Uber investigator who gave her name as Lola. The following week, Lola called with an offer: While Uber wasn’t required to make any payment, she said, the company was willing “to make a $400 payment to assist… given the inconvenience and poor experience caused by the incident.”

“Let me get this straight,” Johnson interjected, according to a recording of the call he shared with Quartz. “You want to make a $400 payment to me after one of your employees assaulted me?” He pressed Lola, becoming more agitated. “You’re assisting me with a coverup of one of your employees, who violated me as a disabled veteran?” he said. Johnson told Lola he had been recording the call, who said she couldn’t accept that, and hung up.

On May 6, after a period of back and forth, Johnson says Uber reached out and asked him to come into the Greenlight Hub to review and sign a release for the $400 payment. He went in the next day. The four-page document, a copy of which Johnson shared with Quartz, asked him to release Uber and its affiliates from any claims, damages, and expenses related to the Jan. 31 incident. It also included a confidentiality provision stating that any party to the settlement, if asked about it or the initial incident, should say only, “The matter was resolved.”

When asked if this was a standard practice, an Uber spokesperson said response teams are given discretion to come up with solutions, such as voluntary assistance payments, for situations deemed unusual or out of the ordinary, as Johnson’s was.

On May 15, Uber announced it would no longer require confidentiality agreements for complaints involving sexual harassment and assault. The change was a big step for Uber, which had been plagued by allegations of sexual harassment, and was among the first technology companies to do away with these confidentiality provisions. That said, the company’s revised policies don’t apply to class-action lawsuits or other, non-sexual complaints, such as the one Johnson made in Salt Lake City.

Johnson refused to sign Uber’s release. He left the Greenlight Hub on May 7 without the $400 and disturbed by an incident that he felt didn’t fit with Uber’s talk of reforming its corporate culture, or its professed interest in helping out drivers and veterans. Johnson recently stopped driving for Uber, deciding it wasn’t financially worth it. The entire incident, he said, made him feel replaceable.

“They’ve made such a big deal about veterans and cleaning up their image,” he said. “I’m in that demographic. And their response to me was, you don’t matter, sorry.”

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