Houston and Uber Lock Horns Over Background Checks

*This post is a part of our continuing examination throughout April of issues impacting Workplace Violence Awareness Month

Can a city compel a business to conduct more stringent background checks if the city feels its residents and visitors are at increased risk? That’s the question at hand as the city of Houston and transportation network, Uber, lock horns over the company’s background check practices.

In case you haven’t heard, Uber is among a new crop of driving services (Lyft is another one) that work through mobile phone applications to offer rides in a more convenient way. Regular people can apply to be independent contract drivers and go through an application process that includes a background check.

The rapidly expanding companies have only been around for a few years but, already, they are wildly popular and face a handful of lawsuits. In Uber’s case, some lawsuits revolve around drivers’ rights, while others question the company’s insurance practices. It’s the criminal cases and their potential for civil litigation, however, that have most recently cropped in Houston to prompt the city to examine its relationship with Uber.

It started when a woman came forward claiming she had been raped by an Uber driver in late January. Turns out, the driver was an ex-con who had left prison less than three years earlier after serving a 14-year stint on a felony drug charge. The man has since been arrested and charged with sexual assault.

The article says Uber’s background check didn’t flag the man’s federal conviction because it occurred more than seven years before he applied to drive for Uber; the company limits background checks for all crimes other than sex offenses to seven years. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows for convictions to be reported indefinitely and limits seven years for non-convictions to be reported.

Now the city is working feverishly to fight a bill before the state legislature that would allow companies like Uber to be solely responsible for conducting background checks on its drivers.

This article quotes Lara Cottingham, a representative of the city of Houston as saying, “We want to ensure that anyone in the city of Houston, when you get in one of these cars, be it a taxi or an Uber, that you know that the driver is safe and the vehicle is safe. Based on information that has come forward today, those charges were on his background, he would not have passed our background check and he would automatically have been denied a license.”

City officials are now figuring out how they can legally require Uber to comply with more in-depth background checks. So far, nothing concrete has developed.

This is not the first time Uber’s background check standards have come under fire. This forbes.com article from late December 2014 highlights some key issues it found with Uber’s screening practices:

  • “Until recently, Uber told riders its background checks are “industry leading” and “often more rigorous than what it takes to become a taxi driver,” but the complaint says those promises are false and misleading because drivers do not have to be fingerprinted.” 
  • “To become an Uber driver, you only have to submit your name and identification to background checks. You don’t have to prove that the identity is actually yours, which would be done through fingerprinting or other biometric identification. Someone with a criminal record could, in theory, become an Uber driver using the identity of a sibling or a friend with a clean history.”

Uber’s blog is pretty transparent when it comes to their practices. Here is the exact bullet points they provide readers:

All drivers are screened against:

•County courthouse records going back 7 years for every county of residence

•Federal courthouse records going back 7 years

•Multi-State Criminal Database going back 7 years

•National Sex Offender Registry screen

•Social Security Trace (lifetime)

•Motor Vehicle Records (historical and ongoing)

Criteria for drivers to pass through Uber’s screening, going back seven years:

•No DUI or other drug related driving violations or severe infractions*

•No Hit and Runs

•No fatal accidents

•No history of reckless driving

•No violent crimes

•No sexual offenses

•No gun related violations

•No resisting/evading arrest

•No driving without insurance or suspended license charge in the past 3 years

Plenty of people will be watching as this drama unfolds in Houston. Uber drivers and
 riders, city and state officials across the nation, competitors like taxi services, and screening industry insiders will all be directly affected however the lawsuits against Uber and investigations into its practices unfold.

What we know is this – the dialogue about background checks and the reminder about their critical importance in keeping people safe is pushed to the forefront when cases like this arise. At Active Screening we are always energized and reinvigorated in our cause to provide industry-leading, best-in-class background checks to our clients when the news is peppered with stories about screening issues. As for our screening policies, Active Screening reports convictions beyond the seven year timeframe but still in compliance with the FCRA.

Most importantly, we want to hear from you – what’s most important to you when it comes to background checks? Are there parts of the process you wish you understood better? What do you think we do well? Where can we improve? Write your comment below or send us an email here.

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Patricia Carlson is a content writer who specializes in B2C and B2B inbound marketing. She blogs regularly for clients about the background screening and finance industries, and generates newsletters, white papers and email campaigns for a variety of businesses. Patricia also produces a heavy rotation of editorial material for home design, law enforcement, and family magazines. She’s been writing professionally for more than a dozen years, and for Active Screening for more than two of those. Check out LinkedIn for a roster of Patricia's clients and links to published works. When she’s not interviewing sources or researching trends, she’s living a fast-paced Florida life questioning the antics of her two young children, partner and mischievous cat. Patricia loves to talk tennis and TV on Twitter - give her a shout @pattycfreelance.
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