It can be hard at times to defend Uber and Lyft when the state’s background check of their drivers uncovers sex offenders and people with suspended licenses.
So much for trusting the new economy.
The ride-hailing companies did not do themselves any favor, buttressing arguments that they would sooner put profits ahead of public safety.
But the collateral damage in all of this is the untold number of rejected drivers who probably should be on the road but aren’t because of the state’s overreaching, better-safe-than-sorry approach. Both Uber and Lyft have each heard from hundreds of drivers who feel they have been unfairly sidelined because of interim regulations contained in last year’s legislation that blessed ride-hailing over the loud protests of taxi drivers.
Who needs fingerprinting — which the companies fought strenuously to keep out of the law — when we have a Draconian Department of Public Utilities?
Again, here is where Uber and Lyft can’t complain too loudly. They voluntarily agreed to these interim regulations last fall. Perhaps they felt like they didn’t have much of a choice; the alternative would have been to stay off the road until the permanent regulations are put in place this November.
Aggrieved drivers are out of luck other than for the limited appeals process laid out in the interim regulations. Don’t expect Charlie Baker to intervene on their behalf; he is going to take his classic approach of letting the process play out. Don’t expect the Legislature to act either. The ringleaders behind the final legislation, including state Representative Aaron Michlewitz and Senator Karen Spilka, think this is exactly how things should be going.
“I’d rather be too many people knocked off than too few,” said Michlewitz.
In particular, DPU’s decision to look back for some offenses well beyond seven years puts more people in the no-drive pile; Uber and Lyft can look back only seven years, in accordance with criminal records law. Overall, the state rejected some 8,200 applications. (Just for the record, Uber and Lyft don’t allow sex offenders to drive, but the state has more access to sex registry databases.)
Spilka, who chairs the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, also defended the agency’s actions.
“We gave DPU discretion to interpret the definition of suitability” of drivers, she said. “Public safety was a top priority.”
But Senator Jamie Eldridge, who was part of a group of senators who worked on the law, is disappointed. He would file legislation to change it, but the sausage-making on Beacon Hill would be too slow to help. Everyone is better off focused on shaping final regulations, a process that is underway now.
“The DPU interim regs swept [up] a lot of people I personally think the Legislature wasn’t intending,” he said.
During last year’s debate on Beacon Hill, Uber and Lyft made passionate cases against the most stringent of background checks, mandatory fingerprinting, out of a fear it would be discriminatory to those who were arrested but never convicted of crimes. They found an ally in Eldridge, a proponent of criminal justice reform, who successfully fought off fingerprinting, which is required of cabbies in Boston.
Charlie Baker is going to take his classic approach of letting the process play out.
“I am surprised by the DPU’s interim regs, but I am surprised that Uber and Lyft didn’t look out for their drivers more,” said Eldridge.
So what now?
First and foremost, drivers who feel they got a raw deal, can file an appeal any time, and more than 1,400 drivers have, with 444 successfully overturning their ban.
But perhaps more important is that drivers and their advocates need to speak up and be part of the ongoing public debate to shape the permanent regulations. Share your story, reach out to your legislator, submit written comments to the DPU, which are due May 9. Here’s the e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Show up for the public hearing on May 23 at the State Transportation Building in Boston.
Massachusetts is the first state in the country to conduct its own background check of ride-hailing drivers, and it will be a complex calculation to determine which offenses are allowable and which are not, and how far back the state should look to scrub records.
Obvious transgressions will be easy to sort out; automatic disqualification should apply to sex offenders, people recently convicted of violent crimes, and drivers whose licenses are currently suspended.
What will be more difficult is figuring out what to do with the person whose license was suspended at some point in the past, or a person with a continuance without a finding. In those situations, the answer probably should be it depends. If your license was suspended two years ago for unpaid parking tickets and you have paid those tickets, the state isn’t going to ding you, but it may if the suspension involve a serious driving violation.
A person with a continuance of finding — a type of conditional dismissal that is not a conviction — gets rejected for many offenses under the interim policy, but what if that continuance happened 20 years ago?
Even Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, who refiled her legislation calling for ride-hailing drivers to be fingerprinted, is worried about people with minor infractions, such as speeding tickets, being denied a job.
“That is a concern,” she said, adding that she has asked the DPU to analyze the rejected applicant pool to find how many were bounced for minor offences.
Clearly, we need to strike a better balance. While Uber and Lyft have changed the way people get around, more importantly the ride-hailing industry is providing a livelihood to those who can’t otherwise find steady jobs.
Yes, the intent of our new law is to protect passengers. But that can’t all come at the expense of drivers who can least afford not to work.Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.