Harry here. Uber isn’t legally allowed to provide training to its drivers but one issue that can actually get you deactivated as a driver is refusing a ride for a passenger with a service animal. Today, RSG guest poster Michael Goodman recounts his experience with service animals. If you’re an RSG reader with an idea for a great guest post, e-mail me and pitch me on a topic!
It’s important to say this right up front: I love animals and I have tremendous respect for the work performed by service dogs to assist people with disabilities. I’ve never had a problem with carrying a service animal in my car and I never will, as long as they don’t start training elephants! The right of service dogs to ride in Ubers and go places that pets cannot go is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
But service dog fraud, where riders are passing off their pets as service dogs, seems to be a growing problem for Uber drivers, and if you haven’t faced this already, you will probably face it soon. How you respond to this may determine whether your driver account will remain open or not.
I’ve been driving for Uber since December of 2014. At the beginning, I accepted pretty much all animals until a long ride with a medium-sized dog. The next morning, I received a text from Uber that said they had received a “smell” complaint. I naturally assumed I wasn’t personally the source and I’ve been selective about the dogs I carry ever since. One afternoon last July, when a rider approached the car with a ratty-looking Chihuahua, I told them I don’t carry dogs. The rider said it was a service dog and had a license as an “emotional comfort animal.” I laughed and had my doubts, but I carried them because I did not want to take a chance of refusing a service dog.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
When I got home, I did some research and found that service dog fraud is a growing problem. What’s happening is that some pet owners are determined to take their animals with them all the time, and they have been fed a story that they can do this by registering their animals on websites as “emotional support animals.” There are, in fact, laws that provide rights and protections for emotional support animals (The “Fair Housing Act” and the “Air Carrier Access Act”), but these laws are about allowing comfort animals in rental housing or to travel in aircraft. They DO NOT give anyone the right to bring their animal into taxis or Ubers.
With a little more research, I found the ADA defines a service dog as, “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability…” The key element is that they have been TRAINED to perform a task or service. The ADA also specifically EXCLUDES emotional service dogs when it says, “the crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship are not considered work or tasks for purposes of the definition of a service animal.”
That would seem to put the nails in the coffin for the con artists, but it hasn’t stopped them. This is a problem because fake service animals cause many people, especially business owners, to doubt legitimate service dogs, which can hurt people with legitimate disabilities. Fake service dogs have also been documented as sometimes distracting, and even fighting with, real service dogs. In a few cases, service dogs have been injured or otherwise harmed by fake service dogs. What will you do if you pick up a blind person with a seeing-eye dog as the first rider in a pool, then are asked to carry an emotional comfort animal by the next rider?
Uber’s Policy on Service Animals
The biggest concern for the Uber driver is a complaint that alleges you refused to carry a service animal. Section 2.2 of the Uber driver service agreement says:
Your knowing failure to transport a User with a Service Animal shall constitute a material breach of this Agreement. You agree that a “knowing failure” to comply with this legal obligation shall constitute either: (1) a denial of a ride where you state the denial was due to a Service Animal; or (2) there is more than one (1) instance in which a User or the companion of a User alleges that you cancelled or refused a ride on the basis of a Service Animal.
If you missed it, let me emphasize that this section allows for your contract to be considered breached if you have more than one complaint. Just two allegations, regardless of the truth, can result in your account being deactivated!
Related Article: Top 11 reasons Uber drivers can be deactivated
Uber’s Policy In Action
After all this research, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the rules for service dogs, but the learning process was not over. Near the end of September, I was sent to pick up a rider at a restaurant in West Hollywood. When I pulled up, I saw a woman sitting outside the front door with a German Shepherd. No problem, right?
I got out and told the rider the dog was welcome but asked her to have it sit on the floor by her feet. (For any of you that have taken the training required to get a permit to pick up at LAX airport, the video shows the animal sitting on the floor of the back seat. Question 2 asks, “Where should the animal sit?” and the correct answer is, “On the floor of the back seat, by the rider;” so I was just asking the dog to sit where Uber told me. If that requirement is valid at LAX, why wouldn’t it be required elsewhere?)
The rider had her dog jump in, then told me the dog didn’t want to sit on the floor and she was going to cancel. I said OK and left. Three days later, a driving shift was interrupted by Uber, telling me a complaint had been filed about my refusal to carry a service dog. Sheesh!
I let it get in the car and the RIDER decided to cancel, which she conveniently left out of her complaint. I had to drive into the Uber office on Westwood Blvd in Los Angeles to get my account turned back on the next morning, but nobody has offered to compensate me for the lost earnings.
My third meeting with a “service dog” came last week. I was sent to an apartment in Van Nuys, where a Chihuahua was running loose outside. A young guy walks out and scoops up the dog in his hand and comes to the car. I told him I don’t accept dogs and he tells me it’s a service dog. Now, there are only two questions a business owner is legally allowed to ask under the ADA to determine if a service dog is legitimate.
- Is this animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has this animal been trained to perform?
The first question is too easy for the scammers. They just say yes. So I asked the guy the second question and his answer was, “It’s an emotional comfort dog.” Gotcha, right? I told him emotional comfort animals are not considered service animals under the ADA and it could not ride. He got very upset and a group of his buddies started in on me too while I waited for a stoplight to change and get away from there. I wrote up a complaint about the rider (who was not the account holder and may have been underage to boot), sent it to Uber, then went about my day.
Two days later, I get a call from Uber asking me about this. I told them what I wrote in the complaint and what I’ve written above and he said they would turn my account back on (I wasn’t working and didn’t know it was off). But 1 ½ days later, it still wasn’t back on, I’d lost a full day of work, and I had to drive into the Uber office again to be reactivated.
So Should You Take Animals or Risk Lost Earnings?
Here are my takeaways from this experience and research so you won’t have to give up 1 ½ days of earnings to learn them –
- Service dog fraud is a growing issue that most, if not all, drivers will notice before long (if you haven’t already). The people doing this have no concern for the facts and they will file a complaint any time they are denied a ride despite the fact that service dog fraud is a crime in many states (in California, it’s a misdemeanor punishable by 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine). Since Uber can/will deactivate a driver just because a complaint is filed, regardless of the truth, there is no upside to being right.
- Uber does not care whether a service dog is legitimate or fake. They only care about being sued and do not trust drivers to make good choices in this issue. So ANY dog offered as a service dog (or any other animal) should be carried and treated as such, no matter how ridiculous it seems.
- At the end of the ride, check your car for messes and request a cleaning fee as usual. Then rate the animal appropriately. Fake service dogs will all earn the rider a one star from me. This should keep me from being offered any more rides from this account and will help to warn off other drivers.
When it comes to service dogs, the ONLY thing that matters is to avoid complaints.
Bio: Michael Goodman is a native of Los Angeles, has been driving for Uber since December of 2014 and has completed nearly 5,000 trips, most of them at night, while earning lots of nice comments. He is also building an independent life insurance agency and has a website at IndexUniversalLife.net
Drivers, what do you think of riders who take advantage of the service dog requirements? How do you handle these requests?
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-Harry @ RSG