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Buffalo cab companies push back at Uber to get drivers checked

Ride-hailing proponents for upstate New York are now feeling the brunt of a major push back by Buffalo taxi operators.

Companies like Liberty Taxi are pointing to cases of sexual harassment and even rape by ride-hailing drivers. They say these incidents, and allegations of sexual harassment within industry leader Uber, make the case for drivers to undergo background checks and fingerprinting before picking up their first upstate passengers.

“If they’re serious, they would make fingerprinting mandatory in New York State,” Joel A. Giambra, the former county executive and now a lobbyist, said Tuesday. “But they’ve been fighting it because of this culture within their corporation that seems to tolerate harassment.”

Giambra was referring to new reports that former Uber engineer Susan Fowler accused Uber’s workplace culture of allowing male superiors to solicit her for sex, while human resources officers shrugged off her concerns. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has promised an investigation to be led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

But Liberty President William G. Yuhnke is not about to ignore the new allegations. In a letter to Kalanick, he calls on the company to urge state legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to include background checks and fingerprinting for all ride-hailing drivers in any legislation expanding the service to upstate.

State law currently permits ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft to work only in New York City.

“The public needs to be protected,” Yuhnke said. “When riders get into a car, they must have some level of comfort that their driver is not a person with a criminal history who could possibly cause them harm.

“Legislation coming out of Albany must ensure that riders are protected from that possibility by requiring that ride-hailing drivers are covered by the same rules as our drivers,” he added. “It is essential legislation to protect the public.”

Giambra added that cab companies do not oppose rider sharing, but demand an "equal playing field" upon which Uber and Lyft are required to provide the same precautions.

Uber officials dispute claims reported by News last year that the Internet reveals “thousands” of claims of sexual harassment or assault, as has been claimed by some opponents of ride-hailing under current rules.

But the Uber executive’s claims of a sexual harassment culture within the company underscore concerns, Giambra says.

He also said Uber or other companies could already be operating upstate if they followed the same rules as taxi operators by purchasing a city permit and commercial insurance.

“They are not in upstate New York because they choose not to,” he said.

He added Uber now operates in New York City only after drivers are fingerprinted and go through background checks performed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

“Why does Uber want to protect their customers in New York City and not in Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse?” he asked. “Our customers are not worthy of the same protections as New York City?”

In his budget message to the Legislature earlier this year, Cuomo proposed expanding ride-hailing to upstate under certain conditions. But the full Legislature has so far not acted on the proposal, and in previous years it has been stalled in the Assembly.

Meanwhile, Giambra noted that negotiations are underway between local taxi operators and the City of Buffalo to ensure cab availability during the NCAA basketball tournament slated for KeyBank Center in March. While tourism officials and others have criticized the Uber prohibition as an impediment to attracting tourism, conventions and other special events, Giambra said taxi operators aim to provide 50 to 100 cabs outside the arena throughout the tournament.

He said Buffalo police now prohibit even taxis from entering the arena area after games, but Liberty and other companies hope to counter criticism over the lack of ride-hailing with an availability of taxis outside the Sabres Store underneath the Skyway. A “starter” would be on hand to direct customers to waiting cabs, he added.

Giambra said he is “optimistic” negotiations will lead to an agreement, but added the dialogue has not continued for almost two weeks.

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