ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you've ever been fired, you know how bad that can feel. Well, now imagine that instead of your boss or HR telling you that face to face, you get the news as a pop-up alert on your smartphone. Well, that's how it works at Uber. This afternoon, NPR's Aarti Shahani continues her series on the experience of Uber drivers.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Uber driver Eric Huestis thought it was any other day.
ERIC HUESTIS: I went and filled up my car for the night. I went to the car wash.
SHAHANI: He was in Burlington, Vt., about 25 miles from home. He loaded his Chrysler 300 with bottles of water, a nice and somewhat expected courtesy for Uber passengers. He slid into the front seat, opened his Uber app.
HUESTIS: And the app wouldn't work.
SHAHANI: By that, he means he got an alert.
HUESTIS: Your account needs attention. Please contact customer support.
SHAHANI: It's counterintuitive, but in the world of Uber, Huestis is a, quote, unquote, "customer." He benefits from the company's signature service - the iconic black app that matches him with riders. Huestis hit the button, which directed him to a form, not a person. And moments after submitting, he got a message from a company Uber uses to do criminal background checks called Checkr. It's another Silicon Valley startup.
HUESTIS: I had a charge of possession of marijuana on my record that needed to be reviewed by Uber in order for me to drive.
SHAHANI: The timing threw him off. The 42-year-old who lives with his girlfriend and her kid absolutely had a record for three marijuana possessions - most recently in 2010. He says when he started driving for Uber last year, it wasn't an issue. He passed the check. And the only thing that's changed since is that on January 1, New Year's Day, he got a pardon from the governor of Vermont. A pardon is a way to clean, not dirty your record. Plus, Huestis says...
HUESTIS: It wasn't a DWI. It wasn't a felony. It wasn't a rape charge. It wasn't a kidnapping. It was nothing violent or anything that would stop me from being an Uber driver, so I was like, why is this happening?
SHAHANI: Huestis was sweating bullets. He'd recently bought a used car just to drive for Uber. While he was invested in them, he says, they're not invested in him. Uber didn't have a number for him to call even though this was an emergency. Huestis says state officials whom he could reach didn't have a way to call the company either. So the Uber driver found himself trapped in a maze of online forums and generic emails. At first, they said it would take 15 days to review his case, then, 30. It was the worst of, quote, unquote, "customer service." And he says if it doesn't sound like a big deal...
HUESTIS: What if you got booted off your cellphone provider? That would - that would change everything. I mean, I got booted off my income provider for no reason.
SHAHANI: This may be a window into the future of work. For years, workers have enjoyed how technology creates distance from the boss. You can join meetings from home or from Hawaii. But with Uber, we're coming to a strange inflection point. The company has designed an app that is so efficient, cheap, scalable it can manage 600,000 drivers in the U.S., but the system lacks the most basic sympathy. And so Huestis is left checking his Uber app, waiting to learn the fate of his career the way some people check Facebook to see if a selfie got liked.
HUESTIS: Yeah, and that was checking it constantly.
SHAHANI: Huestis called NPR the day he was axed. And over the weeks, we followed his ups and downs. On May 1, he texted (reading) I'm in tears today. Rent's due. No income from Uber in over 20 days.
He did make a bit of money by picking up scrap metal from nearby farms and recycling it - kind of like you do with soda cans - only he can't do that work alone. He needs a friend to help because he's an amputee.
HUESTIS: I'm missing a leg - left leg above knee amputee, all the way to the hip - motorcycle accident, yeah.
SHAHANI: That's why he really liked driving for Uber.
HUESTIS: Uber is great for me because I don't need anybody. I can get in my car and go.
SHAHANI: Eric Huestis is not a one-off. NPR interviewed more than a dozen drivers who've been, quote, unquote, "de-activated." That's the word Uber uses. Many don't know why exactly it happened. Some were let back on mysteriously. This is not news to Uber's chief of driver and rider relations, Janelle Sallenave.
JANELLE SALLENAVE: I absolutely acknowledge that we have had some serious work that we've needed to do to improve how we how - we handle those situations where we need to evaluate if a driver should be removed from the platform.
SHAHANI: She says Uber is undertaking significant policy changes right now but declined to provide details. In Eric Huestis' case, the company says, the proper appeals procedures were followed with the third party background check company. After nearly a month without work, Huestis was let back on. He'd like to sue Uber for lost wages, which he says would be about $3,000. That's a lot of money for him but not enough for a lawyer to bother with his case. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.