Rideshare rejection: Thousands fail background checks for Uber, Lyft in Massachusetts

BOSTON (WHDH) - More than 8,000 for ride-for-hire apps drivers like Uber and Lyft in Massachusetts – about one out of every nine – have been kicked to the curb.

On Wednesday, the state announced they’ve all been banned after the completion of state-run background checks. The Department of Public Utilities’ new Transportation Network Company Division completed the checks, which included a look at drivers’ criminal history, driving record, and any outstanding warrants.

“Public safety is a top priority for this administration and we are pleased to have completed this first round of in depth background checks a year ahead of schedule,” said Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement. “Thanks to the collaboration between this administration and transportation network companies, Massachusetts has set a national standard for driver safety and we look forward to future partnerships with Uber, Lyft and others to grow this innovative industry and support more jobs and economic opportunities for all.”

But some now-former drivers – and Uber itself – are furious.

“I’ve been driving in Boston for 18 years. I know how to get you from one way to the other in no time,” said Ashir Mehmood, a recently banned Uber driver.

Mehmood told 7NEWS that he drove 60,000 miles for Uber in less than two years. But in January, he hit one long red light.

“I was dropping somebody off, and my app was acting funny,” Mehmood said.

Uber had blocked him, after a State of Massachusetts background check showed his driver’s license had been suspended within the past seven years.

Mehmood admits to too many traffic tickets, but said his young children have changed him.

“Give me a second chance, just to provide for my kids. That’s all I want,” Mehmood said. “Please give it a second look. That’s all I’m asking for is one more chance.”

“If I can toot my own horn a little bit, I actually carried a 4.8 rating in the six or seven months that I did it,” said Sean Conley, another recently banned Uber driver who was previously making up to $1,000 per month through the app.

Conley’s state background check uncovered a misdemeanor assault and larceny charge in 2013, both of which were eventually dismissed.

“I think at first, it was probably some resentment, some anger – those kind of emotions. And then as it sunk in, I was just sort of disappointed,” Conley said.

He still has his other job – as a driver for a national delivery company.

“I would really like the other side of the coin to be shown, that there are people getting wrapped up in it that probably don’t belong there,” Conley said of the state background checks.

On Wednesday, the state announced the results of its background checks, which were far stricter than the companies’ standards.

More than 1,600 drivers were disqualified because they had had their driver’s licenses suspended sometime within the past seven years. More than 1,500 had been charged with some kind of violent crime, although some were not convicted. Another 149 drivers had been charged with or convicted of a felony robbery, and 51 were found to be sex offenders.

But critics said the state’s checks cast too wide of a net, when drivers like Conley and Mehmood are getting caught in it.

“We have people who are going to lose their homes, who are going to lose their cars,” said Johanna Griffiths, an attorney with the Law Offices of Russell J. Matson, which has received dozens of calls from banned drivers since the background checks began in January. “They are continuing to punish them for something that is no longer actually relevant to their ability to do the job.”

Griffiths said her office has fielded calls from nurses, a worker in a hospital’s pediatrics department, and a high-ranking state government employee – all of whom have now been banned from ride-for-hire apps.

She argued that lumping sex offenders in with those drivers, and others who simply failed to pay a traffic ticket on time, and had their driver’s licenses suspended as a result, is patently unfair.

“There is an interest in the public being safe. But this isn’t about maintaining public safety. This has gone way beyond that. These people aren’t a danger. They are essentially losing their livelihood for no reason,” Griffiths said. “I’ve heard of a guy who has a 57-year-old record who was caught up in this. That was not the intent of the legislature.”

Uber itself appears to agree.

In a statement, the company told 7NEWS:

“Thousands of people in Massachusetts have lost access to economic opportunities as a result of a screening that includes an unfair and unjust indefinite lookback period. We have an opportunity to repair the current system in the rules process so that people who deserve to work are not denied the opportunity.”

Private companies are only allowed to explore a driver’s history within the past seven years. The state’s more stringent checks encompassed a driver’s entire lifetime for many crimes, and often did not require a conviction for a driver to be disqualified.

Drivers who have been disqualified can appeal, but it’s unclear how many have done so.

The state is continuing to draft new regulations for so-called “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft, and expect the process to take approximately nine months.

(Copyright (c) 2017 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)