It wasn’t the first time Charles Hossle had issues when calling an Uber. As someone who is quite hard to miss — the 53-year-old drag nun is 6’4”, and that’s without the heels and habit — he once had a driver speed off the second he saw who he’d be picking up.
But everything had seemed pretty normal on his May 8 ride in San Francisco. Hossle, who performs as Sister Diana Fyre, was heading home after an event with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the troupe of drag nuns he belongs to. “A few hours later, I got an email from Uber that said my driver had reported me for not wearing a mask,” Hossle told BuzzFeed News. “But if you know any drag queens, you know we don’t not take selfies.”
Hossle had, in fact, taken a selfie during the ride, which showed him wearing a pale, silvery mask that covered him from his chin to just below his eyes. He put on the mask before entering the car and didn’t take it off until he got home, he said.
He was left wondering whether he’d been falsely reported due to anti-LGBTQ bias, as is a regular occurrence in the drag community. In 2017, one of Hossle’s fellow San Francisco drag nuns was refused a ride when their Lyft driver saw what they were wearing. A few months later, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Aja was kicked out of a Lyft after kissing their boyfriend.
Despite challenging the claim to an Uber rep, Hossle was required to take a selfie to verify he was masked before his next ride — not a massive inconvenience, but a frustrating resolution to what he believes was likely an incident rooted in discrimination.
“I don’t know — was it the mask?” Hossle said. “Or was it the lashes and gorgeous legs?”
Implementing safety precautions on ride-hailing apps has been essential to keep both passengers and drivers protected throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Both Uber and Lyft continue to require masks, regardless of vaccination status, and allow both parties to report each other if one of them does not comply. But while this feature is intended — and presumably most often used — to simply report those who refuse to wear masks, some people are abusing it, making false claims of masklessness, both to discriminate against passengers and cheat drivers out of fares.
“It’s one of those things where it happens one or two times, you might think it’s a coincidence,” said Corey, 29, who is Black and lives on the South Side of Chicago. “But around the fifth or sixth time, or even the second time in a day or a week, you start to realize.” (Corey asked, like others in this story, that their last name not be used for privacy purposes.)
People of color, as well as LGBTQ individuals and passengers with disabilities, have long faced issues of discrimination when it comes to hailing a taxi, often watching cab after cab drive straight past with no one stopping to pick them up. Ride-hailing apps were once seen as a possible solution to this experience, since the cars are summoned automatically — but research has shown that they’re not necessarily a great equalizer, with discrimination still remaining a rampant problem. A 2016 study indicated that Black passengers wait up to 35% longer waiting times for their Uber or Lyft than white passengers do, and “the cancellation rate for African American sounding names was more than twice as frequent compared to white sounding names.”
As the ride-hailing industry has adapted to the pandemic, so too has discrimination. Ezekiel “Eze” Jackson, a 40-year-old in Baltimore, said he has been falsely reported for going without a mask three times on Lyft — twice before he even entered the car, leading him to think the drivers just didn’t want to drive a Black man. “I do get Lyft drivers sometimes that I can tell by their demeanor that they’re not thrilled that I’m Black, but what are you going to do?” he said.
Corey, the Chicago resident, said they’ve lost track of the number of times they’ve been falsely reported for not wearing a mask, and that their friends and colleagues living in the predominantly Black neighborhood have experienced the same. “Especially now, access to transportation is an important issue,” Corey said. “And having access to the most popular ride-share service taken away because of false claims is concerning — both to me and for people worse off than me.”
Corey is exceptionally cautious when it comes to masks, so the frequency of these false reports has been disheartening. But at the same time, Corey is conscious of the dangers Uber and Lyft drivers have faced — particularly during a pandemic in which they were kept in spitting distance of countless strangers, including ones who were exposed to or infected with COVID-19. And since these drivers are treated as independent contractors instead of employees, their multibillion-dollar companies do not provide them with health insurance.
Corey wants these reports from passengers to be taken seriously when they’re true, but that can be hard to determine when it’s one person’s word against the other. “It’s important for the safety of the driver for that option to be there, because there are people who’ll just jump in the car without a mask on,” Corey said.
Representatives for Lyft and Uber said the companies have processes in place to scope out fraudulent claims, but declined to further specify how many complaints about masks they receive and how they are investigated. However, a spokesperson for Lyft told BuzzFeed News they take claims of false mask complaints seriously. “While we encourage both riders and drivers to decline to accept or cancel rides if they ever feel unsafe, we also take action if we believe a driver or rider is using the penalty-free cancellation policy fraudulently,” the Lyft spokesperson said.
An Uber representative also said their company does not tolerate discrimination. “The vast majority of trips have resulted in no reported mask issues,” the Uber spokesperson said. “However, if we are made aware of an incident involving discrimination, we will investigate and take appropriate action, including removing access to Uber.”
Many Uber and Lyft drivers live in constant fear of getting unceremoniously booted off the app. Drivers who spoke with BuzzFeed News said the companies have a reputation for siding with customers over workers when complaints arise, and falling short of anything but a top-notch driver rating can be all it takes to lose your source of income; according to leaked documents obtained by Business Insider in 2015, Uber drivers whose ratings slip below a 4.6 average can be deactivated.
But now, that’s a fate even the highest-rated drivers have to worry about. In Facebook groups and Reddit forums, swathes of ride-hailing service drivers have said they’ve been falsely reported for going maskless, with many saying it’s happened to them multiple times. Some just get slapped with a warning and are temporarily required to take a selfie showing their mask before picking up riders, but others have been suspended or permanently deactivated as a result.
“I was an essential worker,” Lisa Ditalia, a now-deactivated Uber driver, told BuzzFeed News. “And then I was slapped in the face when it was all done and said.”
Ditalia, a 61-year-old in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, started driving for Uber in 2014. She took great pride in the service she provided, and even achieved the prestigious “Diamond” status granted only to the highest-rated drivers. But on May 12, she was suddenly kicked off of Uber, her sole source of income.
It was the lack of transparency that Ditalia found most frustrating. She contacted Uber Support and was told there had been “multiple reports” that she’d violated mask guidelines, but they could not tell her how many or when, or provide any other details. This came as a shock to her, because she always wore her mask while driving, she said. Her only guess is that she may have momentarily pulled it to the side to take a sip of water during one of her long days on the road. Her deactivation was permanent, and she was unable to appeal.
“There’s no recourse to me as a driver for any of these complaints,” Ditalia said.
Dishonest complaints from passengers trying to score free rides aren’t a totally new issue facing ride-hailing service drivers. “These kinds of rider scams have honestly been around since day one,” said Harry Campbell, a former Uber and Lyft driver who now runs the popular blog The Rideshare Guy. “Frankly, a lot of times it works pretty well, because for the company it’s typically cheaper and easier for them to just refund a ride than it is to investigate these ‘he said, she said’ types of situations.”
That’s long been the experience of Derek, a DC-based Lyft driver. “It happens a lot,” he said. “They’ll say someone smelled of alcohol or they were speeding and all that, but I have a dashcam, so that protects me.”
Knowing the precarious nature of his work, Derek said he follows safety protocols and always wears a mask to avoid such complaints. But on three separate occasions, he was reported anyway, and was suspended for a few hours each time. He estimates that he probably missed out on about $100 in earnings for each of these suspensions. “It’s upsetting, because you’re following the guidelines, and you’re trying to make your money,” Derek said.
Even with temperatures now in the 90s and humid in DC, Derek keeps his mask on and windows down, only closing them and turning on the air conditioning if a passenger specifically requests it. Still, he feels on edge, painfully aware the next suspension or worse could come at any time if someone lies about his mask.
“When you drive for these ride-share companies, they can deactivate your account for no reason,” he said. “It’s not even just the false reporting — you don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next.”