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Driver says Uber targeted his profile after he critiqued high-level executive

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David Plouffe, Uber senior vice president of policy and communications, listens as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at the opening of the new Uber offices Thursday, June 11, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

An Uber driver who critiqued the company’s top-brass at a highly publicized event now tells the San Francisco Examiner he’s facing backlash from the tech company.

Last Friday Eric Barajas, a Bay Area-based Uber driver who works in San Francisco, leveled criticism to Uber which garnered exposure in national news. The next day, he said, he was unable to get fares via the Uber app.

Barajas showed the Examiner video of two phones with two Uber driver accounts side by side, one showing “pings” for ride requests, while Barajas’ phone had no pings. Now he says he isn’t sure what to do – his three children and wife depend on his earnings to live, and without his income from Uber he may face dire financial straits.

The Examiner contacted Uber, and only an hour after a phone conversation with an Uber spokeswoman, Barjas saw his account suddenly reactivated.

He also reported “strange” modifications to his profile and Uber login screen, what he said are clear signs Uber was trying to shore up the story they told this reporter.

“You call them, and then its active,” Barajas told the Examiner. “That says to me they’re trying to cover their tracks.”

He still worries that his account may be deactivated or otherwise modified in the future, once media exposure dies down. That exposure began last Friday, when former Obama campaign manager turned-Uber advisor David Plouffe was onstage at the Next Economy Conference in San Francisco.

As cameras rolled, Plouffe invited drivers to speak at a microphone. Barajas made his voice heard.

“I just wanted to know how you guys are helping the economy when there are full time drivers like me… who are struggling to make ends meet, barely making minimum wage,” he said. On Craigslist, Uber in the past has said drivers could make $35 an hour, Barajas said, but that isn’t near what he earns.

“After all the expenses I’m really struggling, I don’t know if I can pay my PG&E bill and my water bill,” he said.

Plouffe replied, “We’d like to sit down with you and talk about how we can improve your situation.”

Fortune and Business Insider both reported Barajas’ critique.

Above, Barajas talks about his experience with Uber and shows us his app, which receives no pings despite his location – in the middle of the most congested and surge-prone part of San Francisco.

After the incident, Uber representatives called and left a voicemail. At the Examiner’s office, Barajas played this voicemail, when someone identifying himself as “Abram calling from Uber” said “Hope you’re having a nice Friday,” and that he wanted to reach out on behalf of Plouffe. “I want to reiterate, we’d never deactivate a driver for… speaking up.”

Indeed, Barajas’ account was not deactivated. He activated the app for the Examiner, and as we spoke for a few minutes he waited for it to ping. In the middle of downtown San Francisco, the “home of surge pricing” as Barjas called it, he received no requests for a ride from passengers for more than 20 minutes.

This mirrors his experience last weekend, when spent he more than five hours searching for passengers to no avail. Not a single “ping,” he said. He even tried logging into his account from another phone. It didn’t help.

Plouffe “painted this beautiful picture” of how Uber helps the economy, of part-time drivers, Barajas said. But Uber offers many perks for driving full-time like credit card benefits. With his gas and car upkeep expenses, the profit doesn’t pencil out on full time driving, he said.

In the past, Uber has responded to such claims by saying drivers benefit greatly from flexibility and part-time options. Many teachers and other workers also moonlight as Uber drivers, the company touts. It let’s people be their own boss.

An hour after Barajas left the Examiner’s offices, he received an email from Uber that said his insurance documents were out of date – perhaps an explanation for the lack of passenger requests via the app.

“It looks like some documents are expired or missing from your account,” an email from Uber read, specifically mentioning his insurance. Barajas showed this to the Examiner. But in another screenshot from Uber’s records that Barajas showed the Examiner, documentation clearly shows his car insurance expires in April 2016.

Perhaps there was simply a document mix-up. But for Barajas, the timing – seeing no passenger pings the day immediately following his critique of Plouffe – makes the coincidence just too strong to ignore.

When the Examiner made inquiries last night, Uber spokeswoman Jessica Santillo would only speak off-the-record, later providing an on-record statement via email:

“We are pleased that our valued partner Mr. Barajas continues to earn income by driving with Uber. One of his cars was removed from Uber in October due to a document issue, as Uber only allows vehicles with up to date insurance and registration on file to accept rides. We make every attempt to contact drivers in those situations so they can provide correct documentation, as we have done and will continue to do with Mr. Barajas.”

Eric Barajas, pictured here, is an Uber driver who spoke out against its practices and said his account was later interfered with by Uber itself. Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner

Eric Barajas, pictured here, is an Uber driver who spoke out against its practices and said his account was later interfered with by Uber itself. Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner

Barajas’ documentation was up to date, he said, he also allowed the Examiner to review his documentation. He does have multiple vehicles, but in a video he provided the Examiner, he showed himself logging into the Uber app with each of his vehicles – none of them allowed him to pick up passengers.

And as for the claim that his documentation was out of date in October, he again points to the strange timing – his account only experienced problems the day after he criticized Plouffe, the Uber advisor.

Santillo formerly worked in the White House, like Plouffe, according to her LinkedIn profile. Tuesday morning, Barajas said Santillo called his cell phone to offer to resolve issues with his app.

As of this writing, he has not called her back. “I’m not speaking to someone like that no way,” he said, and was suspicious of why such a high-level Uber employee – in communications – would try to fix his account.

Barajas also showed the Examiner video of his app screen late last night, and mysteriously the word “EATS” (referring to UberEATS delivery program) appeared on his Uber app in the lower left corner, where it did not earlier in the afternoon. This would indicate he drives for UberEATS, instead of or as well as Uber X, a different designation for drivers.

Barajas speculated it may have to do with Uber later crafting a story to explain why his app did not work.

No matter what they later say, Barajas said, “They admitted to putting my account on hold.”

After his experience with what he believes is retaliation from Uber, he still wants to drive for them. “Yeah I’m going to keep driving, absolutely,” he said.

But, now he’s skeptical about the company’s treatment of its contractors.

“I’ve heard stories from other drivers, it used to be just a story,” he said. “Now that I experienced this, nothing surprises me.”

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