The baby was early, but the first time parents were ready. They summoned the birthing coach, grabbed the overnight bag, and stepped out the door of their New York apartment for a three mile ride to the delivery room. The Uber arrived, but then came the hitch.
Instead of taking David Lee and his wife to the hospital, the Uber driver balked because the expectant mother retched on the sidewalk. He informed them he would lose $1,000 a day if Lee’s wife became sick in the car and, what’s more, told them no other driver would accept a woman in labor as a passenger.
The birthing coach explained to the driver that Lee’s wife would not be sick again, and the couple pleaded with the driver, assuring him they would pay for any cleaning for his car. Please, just take us to the hospital, they said. But the driver would not budge.
Instead, he drove away—but not before charging them $13 for his lost time. Lee and his wife in labor, along with the birthing coach, were left standing on a Manhattan sidewalk.
The couple’s predicament may be a cautionary tale for other expectant parents who plan to use Uber or another car service to get to the hospital. But it also raises important questions of how anti-discrimination laws should apply to a generation of companies that prefer to style themselves as tech platforms rather than transportation services.
Fortunately, in the case of Lee and his wife, the day ended happily: they summoned another Uber car, which whisked them without incident to the hospital where a healthy baby boy was born a few hours later.
The ordeal with the first Uber driver on that brisk November morning is just a receding memory for the new parents. But Lee, a 37-year-old lawyer, and his wife (who did not want to be named) remains miffed at the ride-hailing company.
“I don’t blame Uber for one driver’s poor actions, since bad apples can appear in any organization, but I do think that when a company has a culture of bullying their way past laws and regulations, as Uber seems to do, they begin to think they can act with impunity in anything,” said Lee.
In response to his complaints, Uber eventually refunded the $13. But Lee is frustrated that the company would not acknowledge any wrongdoing by Uber or by the driver.
“Denying service to a passenger in labor is unacceptable: it goes against our code of conduct and the standard of service our riders rely on. We extend our deepest apologies to both riders and have taken action to respond to this complaint. We are glad that the rider’s next driver was professional and courteous.”
“Babies born on New York City sidewalks”
What happened to Lee and his wife can, for the most part, be chalked up to bad luck. After all, most New York City car drivers— Uber or otherwise—would have rushed to help a woman in labor. Indeed, taxi-based births are not unheard of in the Big Apple.
But Lee’s experience also raises familiar questions about whether Uber should be doing more to educate its drivers about their legal responsibilities. Those responsibilities don’t just relate to safe driving, but to civil rights as well.
According to Emily Martin, the general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, DC, city and state laws in New York forbid drivers from refusing women in labor.
“Uber drivers are bound by the same public accommodation laws that prohibit New York City taxi drivers and car services from discriminating on the basis of pregnancy when deciding who they will pick up—and those laws are a good thing, as they help ensure that not many babies end up being born on New York City sidewalks.”
The issue of how public accommodation laws apply to Uber also surfaced last year after disabled passengers sued the company and its competitor, Lyft, for denying services to passengers with wheelchairs and service dogs. Meanwhile, feminist icon Gloria Steinhem recently included better treatment of the disabled by Uber as one of her ten Christmas wishes.
It appears Uber is taking some of the criticism to heart. In response to a question about whether it educates its drivers about public accommodation issues, the company pointed to its non-discrimination policy and code-of-conduct to say it is setting expectations that refusal of service based on identity will not be tolerated.
Uber added that, anytime a rider reports discrimination, the company will investigate and, in some cases, terminate its relationship with the driver.
As for Lee, he agrees Uber is bound by public accommodation laws, but also questioned whether the company is committed to ensuring its drivers abide by them. He also fears that some groups will be affected more than others when Uber fall short.
“Uber should have clarified their policies on drivers and women in labor, and confirmed that the driver received appropriate disciplinary action,” said Lee. “I’m fortunate enough to know my rights and have access to resources, but I feel for the person who is not as lucky.”