MANY OF the nation’s biggest cities have tried to require ride-booking services such as Uber and Lyft to establish fingerprint background checks for their drivers, in the interest of public safety, only to discover that the companies, which hate the idea, have them over a barrel. The pressure on local leaders can be intense: Don’t they want their town to remain in (or join) the 21st century? And what about the thousands of people who make ends meet as part-time drivers in the gig economy — don’t they deserve the extra income?
In the face of threats by Uber and Lyft to leave or stay out of a city, a county or even an entire state, many public officials have buckled, much as Maryland’s Public Service Commission did last month in dropping its effort to force fingerprint background checks. (It did beef up rules for biographic background checks.)
The fact is that fingerprinting is widely required for bus, taxi and limousine drivers; it is generally regarded by law enforcement as the gold standard of background checks. Given reports nationally that some gig drivers have assaulted passengers, fingerprinting makes sense as an added measure to protect the public.
Uber and Lyft complain that fingerprinting is unfair, onerous, racially tilted and unreliable. Those arguments are largely specious. For one thing, both firms submit to the requirement in New York City, and Uber also does so in Houston. In other words, if the city (and profit potential) is big enough, the firms suck it up and bear the burden. And if the city isn’t big enough, the firms have shown themselves willing to walk, as they did when voters in Austin passed a ballot measure requiring fingerprint background checks this past spring.
The firms say they worry fingerprinting is a hassle that may discourage the flow of new drivers — about a half-million have already signed up across the country. In fact, the burden is minimal: In Houston, prospective Uber drivers pay about $40 to be fingerprinted, a process that takes about 10 minutes.
As for the argument that fingerprinting disadvantages black prospective drivers because they are disproportionately and sometimes erroneously represented in criminal databases — well, yes. Yet few dispute that fingerprinting provides the public with added protection when it comes to hiring bus drivers, teachers, security guards, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, nurses, government employees and many other prospective employees in sensitive occupations that involve interacting with the public.
The firms’ real reason for opposing fingerprinting may be that it (slightly) strengthens the argument that their drivers are employees and not, as Uber and Lyft insist, private contractors. As employees, they would be eligible to press for a range of benefits that would upend the firms’ labor costs and business models.
Uber and Lyft say their own biographic background checks, performed by private contractors, are just as efficient in weeding out applicants with criminal backgrounds. Not many law enforcement agencies buy that. Fingerprinting isn’t a foolproof tool for background checks, but neither are the biographic databases used by the ride-booking services now. The best way to protect the public is to insist on both.
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