The brother of an Uber driver who was killed during an armed robbery in San Francisco has published a letter to the ride-hailing giant demanding access to his brother’s Uber account, $4 million in immediate aid for the victim’s family and better pay for all Uber drivers.
Afghan refugee Ahmad Fawad Yusufi, 31, had been driving for both Uber and Lyft since he arrived in the United States three years ago via the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) granted to Afghans who were contracted to work for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Both Yusufi and his brother Mohammad Dawood Mommand, otherwise known as Ilyas, worked alongside U.S. soldiers as interpreters for the army. Like many other Afghan refugees and immigrants, the two brothers were resettled in a low-income neighborhood in Sacramento, California, and would head into San Francisco, where incomes and fares are higher, in order to earn a living.
“We go to San Francisco for three to four days at a time because there’s more work, then we work and sleep in the car,” Ilyas told TechCrunch. “We try to get a room, but we cannot afford a hotel room. Because for one day, 12 hours of work, we can only make $250 or up to $300, and then if we get the room or hotel we cannot save anything for our family.”
Yusufi and Ilyas represent the experience of many other Afghan refugees in California, hundreds if Ilyas is to be believed, who have to leave their own neighborhoods and cities to find enough Uber and Lyft work to make ends meet.
“A lot of the resettlement agencies tend to resettle SIV recipients in low-income areas, which are quite oftentimes far away from the city centers or places where they tend to make consistent money working for Uber, so what they end up doing is commuting a distance,” Noah Coburn, an anthropologist at Bennington College and author of “Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global War,” told TechCrunch. Coburn has interviewed more than 250 Afghan immigrants who recently moved to the States under SIVs, and said about half of them have worked for Uber and Lyft. “I think from Sacramento to San Francisco is sort of the extreme one but I’ve heard of other ones around LA and in the San Diego area as well where they’ll often work 16 hours straight.”
Yusufi and other Afghan Uber/Lyft drivers would often congregate in certain areas throughout the city where they could find free parking so they could rest, sleep or eat — usually around parks, 24 Hour Fitness gyms or Safeway supermarkets, according to Ilyas. It might have been on one of these breaks, which took place around 5 a.m. on November 28 on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Portero Avenue, that Yusufi was shot and killed. He was with a fellow Uber/Lyft driver at the time, who was also robbed of his wallet and phone.
TechCrunch reached out to the San Francisco Police Department to obtain a police record of the incident, but because the case is still active, the SFPD said it was unable to share more details other than what it had originally published.
An Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch that Yusufi did not appear to be active, meaning his Uber app might not have been open, during the time of the shooting, and that he had last taken a trip the night before. Ilyas and his brother’s family said they requested access to Yusufi’s Uber account so they could learn more about his last few hours, but that Uber has still not provided access.
Uber said it had been in touch with the family to offer condolences and is working to provide access to the account
“Most of the time my brother worked for Uber, not Lyft,” said Ilyas. “We have access to his Lyft, but Uber doesn’t let us open his account and get information to see how many hours he worked, when he took a break or stopped to sleep. They don’t want to help us.”
“Uber says he wasn’t working at the time, but how is that?” continued Ilyas. “He lives in Sacramento. When he goes to San Francisco he goes for work.”
Determining whether or not Yusufi was working for Uber at the time is a tricky business. Uber often doesn’t consider “inactive” time, when a driver is not actively driving to a passenger or completing a ride, to be time spent on the clock. Many gig workers say this type of definition leads to unfair and inadequate pay because it doesn’t account for the time drivers spend waiting for a customer, driving around in search of customers and just taking a break. App-based gig companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash say they use this model of only paying drivers for active time because it allows drivers to be flexible and use multiple apps at once.
It is to keep precisely this distinction that those companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars last year campaigning for Proposition 22, a ballot measure that was passed in California in November 2020, which allowed app-based companies like Uber and Lyft to continue classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
This proposition was in part a response to a 2019 worker classification bill, Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), that impacts who is entitled to coverage under California labor law. It was under AB 5 that the California courts determined Uber drivers are “employees,” which would mean they’d have access to things like paid sick leave, mandatory breaks and workers’ compensation in the event of injury or accident on the job. California’s labor laws also include death benefits, which include burial expenses and cash benefits to the dependents that the deceased worker supported. Yusufi is survived by his wife, who does not speak English, and three children, including a four-month-old daughter.
Prop 22 also provides death benefits and insurance protection for injuries incurred, at the same rates as California workers’ compensation, but the key distinction is that it only applies to the time an app-based driver is on the app looking for or actively engaged in performing a trip or delivery, according an Uber spokesperson.
In August, a California superior court judge ruled Prop 22 unconstitutional, rendering it unenforceable; however, because supporters appealed the ruling, it is stayed pending appeal. That means for the moment, at least, Prop 22 is still in effect, according to William B. Gould IV, a professor of law at Stanford Law School and author of “For Labor to Build Upon: Wars, Depression and Pandemic.”
If the appeal is not granted, then Yusufi’s family might have a case.
“Without providing a legal opinion, I believe that a persuasive argument can be made that since Uber drivers are now classified as employees, Uber would be responsible for compensating for work-related injuries,” Samantha J. Prince, assistant professor of law at Penn State Dickinson Law, told TechCrunch. “If that part is proven, then a court would have to determine whether this tragic death is a work-related injury.”
Whether or not it falls to Uber to recompense Yusufi’s family is up for debate. Coburn says the U.S. military should share some of that financial burden.
“If you think about the trillions that the U.S. invests in the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and in long-term health care and the GI Bill, educational support for those that went to war, which I think is a fine thing, the investment for contractors is zero,” said Coburn. “And then you had senators and Congresspeople who felt bad about that, as they should have, and so they designed the SIV program to give these Afghans a visa. But what they did was they gave them a visa and they gave them close to nothing. So there was no retraining. There was no work to find jobs. So the resettlement agencies certainly share some of the blame, but I think this is sort of a wider governmental failure to see the big picture.”
Many ride-hail drivers, immigrant or not, come to the apps because they think they’ll be able to make a lot of money, but find that having to cover the costs of gas and auto repairs just ends up sucking them into working more hours to make payments, all the while they’re not building out resumes that could help them find more stable work in the future.
“Uber pledged to support Afghan refugees, yet your company pays wages so low and sustains such precarious working conditions that hundreds of Afghan drivers drive from Sacramento to San Francisco each week and sleep in their cars in unsafe environments — just to earn enough each week to provide for their families,” wrote Ilyas in his open letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, SVP and chief legal officer Tony West and SVP of marketing and public affairs Jill Hazelbaker. “My brother and I did the same. And now after all the work we did for your company, you are turning your backs on us in our time of need.”
A GoFundMe has been set up for Yusufi’s family.