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Council initiates fingerprint background check requirements, fees for Uber, Lyft

Friday, October 16, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

City Council took a step toward requiring drivers for Uber, Lyft and similar companies to undergo fingerprint background checks on Thursday. It also initiated a process that would require such firms, known as transportation network companies, or TNCs, to pay an annual operating fee to the city, part of which would go toward road maintenance.

Council took the steps in two separate resolutions, both of which direct city staff to write up ordinances for the Council Mobility Committee to consider recommending to Council by Nov. 16. The fingerprint background-check resolution passed on a 9-2 vote, with Council members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman opposed. The operating fee resolution passed unanimously.

The fingerprint background-check resolution also sets in motion measures that would ensure that background checks for TNC drivers and taxicab drivers are conducted nationwide and take into account the same offenses.

In addition, the resolution authorizes the city’s Transportation Department to contract with a third-party company to manage the fingerprinting and background-check process so that it is “completed quickly and does not create barriers for onboarding drivers” and directs staff to draft a report comparing the safety and effectiveness of different types of background checks.

Currently, the city allows TNCs to conduct their own background checks for prospective drivers based on identifying information such as Social Security numbers. However, it does not require the fingerprint element that it otherwise requires of drivers for all other ground transportation companies, such as taxicabs.

The city reserves the right to audit those checks through a third-party company.

Representatives for Uber and Lyft have vocally opposed a recent push, led by Council Member Ann Kitchen, to institute the requirement, and they have repeatedly said that they generally do not operate in cities that have instituted such requirements because they raise barriers for drivers who are considering applying to work for their companies. Uber operates in Houston, which does require fingerprint background checks but was an early adopter of TNC regulations.

“I strongly believe that we do not have to choose between a risk of being assaulted and transportation options within our community,” Kitchen said after hearing testimony from Emily LeBlanc, community advocacy director at sexual and domestic assault prevention and counseling nonprofit SafePlace.

“In the past three months, we’ve worked with at least four survivors who were sexually assaulted – or attempted sexual assault – by a TNC driver,” LeBlanc said. “In each of those cases, the victim called a TNC to try to be safe after drinking alcohol so as to not drive intoxicated.”

Adam Blinick, Uber’s public policy lead, argued strongly in favor of his company’s background-check processes and said they are the same ones used by, UPS and FedEx. “Our processes, from start to finish, are unrivaled,” he said.

Blinick said that Uber’s background checks, which involve collecting multiple pieces of information, checking databases and contacting the courthouses of counties where prospective drivers have previously lived – along with its other measures such as driver rating systems and trip tracking – help ensure safety.

Blinick also said that Uber’s background-check processes take some of the burden off of would-be drivers by looking into cases where a driver has been arrested but not charged or convicted of a crime, rather than requiring the driver to explain what happened.

In the case of fingerprint background checks, the city asks the prospective driver to provide the outcome of an arrest, if it does not come up during the background check.

Mike Lesko, deputy assistant director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, argued in favor of fingerprint background checks.

“When you’re doing a background check, the very most important thing is to have proper identification, so you know who you’re actually talking about and whose criminal history … you’re looking at,” Lesko said. “That can only be achieved through fingerprint checks.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair was concerned about the potential consequences of implementing the requirement. “If we follow through with these regulations, we may not have Lyft or Uber or other TNCs operating here in Austin,” she said, adding that she believes the companies help reduce the number of drunk drivers getting on Austin roads.

Council Member Delia Garza explained that her intent is not to run the companies out of town. “I don’t want TNCs to leave Austin, Texas, and I’m hoping we can really find a balance so that you can continue being part of our community,” she said.

The operating-fee resolution directs staff to write up an ordinance that provides TNCs with three options for determining how much they would like to pay the city on an annual basis. These options are a fee that is comparable to the $450-per-permit fee that taxicab companies pay, payment of 1 percent of the TNC’s local gross revenue, or payment of a “comparable amount based on mileage if allowed by law.”

The final option was recommended by Council Member Don Zimmerman, articulated by Mayor Steve Adler and accepted by Kitchen.

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