Uber driver Jason Dalton was accused of shooting eight people, killing six, on Saturday in Kalamazoo, Mich. He didn’t have a criminal history and he passed Uber’s background check. But the incident once again shines light on one of the more troubling aspects of the so-called sharing economy: Who should be held accountable when “gig” companies like Uber don’t consider their workers full employees, rather contractors.
Here’s what you need to know about the risks involved when taking part in the sharing economy, whether that’s riding in an Uber or renting out your home to perfect strangers through Airbnb.
1) Applicants are not interviewed before becoming Uber drivers
Once submitting an application to become a driver, you don’t actually meet anyone from corporate. The application consists of filling out your name, birth date, Social Security number, driver’s license number, insurance and car documentation. But there’s no actual face-to-face meeting. In lieu of an interview, drivers must get a car check-up to ensure their vehicle is in good condition. Dave Sutton, spokesperson for ‘Who’s Driving You,’ a public safety initiative by the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association (TLPA), which represents 1,100 taxicab companies, says “drivers are in the same type of position as daycare providers -- providing service to customers who are vulnerable -- many [riders] are inebriated, in a new city, etc.” Sutton says the practice of not meeting prospective drivers to get a real sense of the person is “troublesome.” Uber’s competitor Lyft does meet with drivers for an interview, he says.
2) Uber does not use fingerprint background checks
Government-required background checks involve fingerprinting, but most companies (Uber included) don’t go through that process and use outside firms to conduct checks. Uber uses services like Accurate and Checkr, two private background check companies to run a Social Security scan (which goes back seven years). “When a driver undergoes a government-conducted background check, you’ve done the very best you can. Yes, you can never fully eliminate risk, but you can try to reduce it,” says Sutton. Home sharing sites like Airbnb and HomeAway don’t require background checks at all, but reserve the right to do so. TaskRabbit, which allows you to outsource small jobs and errands, runs identity checks (no fingerprinting involved) on every registrant.
3) Users are tasked with a lot of responsibility
Uber says “every system of background checks that is available today has its flaws. But we believe that the procedures used by Uber stack up well against the alternatives in terms of safety.” Uber and Airbnb rely heavily on customer feedback. “On the surface, the ratings system seems like a great thing for drivers and passengers, but it doesn’t always play out perfectly,” says Lyft and Uber driver Harry Campbell, who blogs about his experiences as Rideshare Guy. “Drivers are required to maintain a 4.6 rating yet many passengers will rate a satisfactory ride as 3 or 4 stars when that really is a failing grade for drivers.” Airbnb puts the onus on guests, encouraging them to report suspicious or inappropriate activity.
TaskRabbit will compensate users up to $1 million for losses stemming from property damage, injury or theft. It’s on the user to submit claims within 14 days of the issue -- otherwise you won’t get compensated. If your Airbnb host reports “significant property damage” (costs more than $1,000) after your stay (there were only 540 such cases out of 35 million guests last year), then you either have to pay for the damage or disagree to the payment and Airbnb will mediate. As a host, you can also sign up for an insurance program that covers up to $1 million in case of property damage or injury. An Oakland, Calif., couple had a rude awakening after renting out their home over New Year’s when their renter turned out to be a teenager who threw a party and invited 200 friends. The guest has been banned from the site, but it took 14 hours for Airbnb to get back to the hosts. And despite compensation, it’s still their damaged home. Share at your own risk.