In New York, car services are prohibited by law from denying someone a ride to the hospital when they’re about to give birth. But last November, a New York City Uber driver left a woman in labor, her husband, and their birthing coach on the sidewalk, citing concerns for the cleanliness of his vehicle.
At Fortune, Jeff John Roberts reports that the Uber driver arrived at the couple’s apartment when he was called, but after seeing the woman in labor vomit on the sidewalk, he refused to allow her into his car. He’d lose $1,000—presumably in wages—if she got sick in the car, he said, and told the couple that they were unlikely to find an Uber driver who’d agree to serve them. The couple promised to pay for car cleaning if the woman vomited again, but the driver left them on the sidewalk, charging them $13 for the time he spent talking with them on the side of the road.
The next Uber driver the couple found did take them to the hospital, and Uber eventually refunded the $13, but the company declined to provide the couple with the driver’s full name so they could register a complaint with the taxi commission. (They ended up finding it on their email receipt.) “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,” Uber spokesperson Matthew Wing told Slate in a statement. “We extend our deepest apologies to both riders and have taken action to respond to this complaint.”
Since its inception, Uber has been hailed as a Band-Aid, if not a panacea, for the discrimination people of color often face when trying to hail a traditional cab. But with limited and uneven screening, education, and accountability for their drivers, Uber and other ride-on-demand services leave room for individual instances of bias and unjust refusal of services. Several recent lawsuits against Lyft and Uber have alleged that drivers snubbed or mistreated disabled patrons and their service animals.
Still, for some pregnant women, the services offer the best option for an affordable, reliable ride to the hospital. There are stories of valiant drivers like Monica Azhar, an L.A. Lyft driver who recognized that her passenger was in labor, drove her to the hospital, and ran her inside in a wheelchair. “I think Lyft has done a great job with their whole mantra of ‘a friend with a car,’ building that sense of community, so I wasn’t nervous,” Azhar told Slate of her response to an imminent birth in her backseat.
The case of the callous New York City Uber driver exposes one of the primary pitfalls of the 1099 economy, wherein workers are not regularly compensated for the lost wages incurred by work-related complications. A driver’s car, time, and on-the-job expenses are her own responsibility, even when they’re compromised by hazards of the job itself, like the bodily expulsions of drunk bar-hoppers or people in the throes of labor. In the case of rider-wrought vehicle damage like a “pet accident” or vomit, Uber can charge a passenger up to $200, which it passes on to the driver for car repair or detailing. Lyft’s cleaning or repair fee goes up to $250.
But drivers don’t always end up with the full amount. Rideshare Dashboard, a website that offers resources and advice for Lyft and Uber drivers, advises drivers to take pictures of the car’s interior immediately after a passenger gets sick. “Only if there is sufficient vomit will they pay you the full amount,” the site says. “If its just some splatter or some random chunks, they will only pay you half or less.” If Uber is going to nickle-and-dime its contractors over the exact nature of “random chunks,” it almost gives you a tiny bit of sympathy for a driver who leaves a laboring woman by the curb. Almost.