How Uber failed and Lyft nailed one trans woman’s frustrating HR issue

Incident follows City Attorney’s warning to Uber

As a transgender woman, Grace Kwasniak really looked forward to moving to San Francisco from Phoenix. “I moved to this city because this is a place where the culture is more accepting,” she said.

But Kwasniak ran into a civil rights issue and human resources challenge with the two ride-sharing companies she drives for, Uber and Lyft, the San Francisco-based rivals.

This is not Kwasniak’s story alone. Other trans drivers have faced similar struggles, prompting three California city attorneys to look into the issues. San Francisco’s city attorney, David Chiu, has taken an interest in her case.

Signing up to drive in California meant using identification from both her prior identity, and now, to satisfy background check requirements.

Lyft human resources gave her personal attention and respect. “I was able to talk to someone in person,” Kwasniak said. “They even gave me a goodie bag.”

Uber, on the other hand, reverted her identity to her “deadname” (as some trans people refer to their prior name) multiple times, paused her account and demanded identification that the company then rejected, she said.

Kwasniak explained her situation in multiple messages reviewed by The Examiner, even sending Uber a picture of the estrogen prescription she used in her transition.

Uber has now fixed the issue, after The Examiner reached out, Kwasniak notes. An employee who called her apologized profusely and told her “their press team contacted him,” she said. A spokesperson said the company already was working on the issue before The Examiner asked questions.

The Uber spokesperson told The Examiner: “We are investing in improving our processes and systems to better support transgender drivers, and we regret when we don’t meet their expectations.”

Similar issues were exposed in December, when the Los Angeles Times reported that “Uber at times has blocked transgender and nonbinary people from driver and delivery jobs by treating their documents as fraudulent.” Months before her move, Kwasniak also received correspondence with that language, according to screenshots reviewed by The Examiner.

The Times also reported that, like Kwasniak, “Some haggled with Uber for days to get their true name displayed instead of their ‘deadname’ from before they transitioned.”

The Uber spokesperson said Kwasniak’s case was different from those depicted in earlier media coverage because Kwasniak’s identity issues were prompted by her move to a different state. “We are looking into how this happened and intend to take remedial steps,” the spokesperson said.

The Times’ reporting led three California city attorneys — including San Francisco’s Chiu — to write a letter citing “potential legal ramifications,” and asking Uber what the company is doing to address the issues.

“These are serious issues,” Chiu told The Examiner. “Wrongful conduct could lead to liability.” Chiu said Uber has provided his office with information on its recent efforts to address the problems. The company said it has helped more than 1,800 transgender employees who asked to change their names, profile photos or both, and provides them with online help.

Chiu said his office would be happy to review Kwasniak’s case and take it back to Uber.

Chiu also said his office has heard better reviews of Lyft’s HR in this area. “We have heard similar stories in the marketplace. Lyft has had fairly robust practices in place going back a number of years in this area.”

Kwasniak laughed at Uber’s handling of the issue, but said this is a serious issue for other trans workers. “Many trans people are actively working in their transitions in their daily lives. It’s not just me.”

And the two companies’ different handling of Kwasniak’s case are meaningful in the tech world’s competition for talent, experts say.

Katrina Kibben, a Colorado recruiting and HR expert who identifies as trans and nonbinary, said real inclusiveness — not just lip service — may be more important than ever. “People are leaving jobs for new reasons — like values.”

Kibben pointed out that while trans workers are just 1% of the workforce, how companies address their needs is a meaningful measurement of an organization’s ability to evolve and help all employees.

John Sumser, a San Francisco human resources analyst at HRExaminer, said trans rights are more than just a legal and ethical issue for tech companies. They are a competitive advantage.

“The company that’s welcoming the people who are different is going to have a longer run,” Sumser said. “There’s a significant competitive difference.”

Lyft said in a statement the company “is committed to creating a safe and inclusive community in which all drivers and riders are treated with respect and dignity. We support the right of individuals to express their true identities, and we want to make sure Lyft’s values are reflected in our features and policies.”

Kwasniak is moving on to a new role as a peer counselor for a crisis team, the job she moved to San Francisco for. The nearly 7,500 rides she gave for Uber and Lyft have brought her on a journey to a new job in a new city. But this experience left a lingering impression.

She got the first email alerting her to the recent issues with her Uber profile on March 31, International Transgender Day of Visibility, which was started by activists in 2009 to raise awareness of discrimination faced by trans people.

She notes that on that day, President Joe Biden said in a proclamation that “Transgender Americans continue to face discrimination, harassment and barriers to opportunity.”

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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