Some Confusion at Austin's First Ride-Hailing Driver Fair

May 18, 2016

Former full-time Uber and Lyft driver Kurt Wagenman showed up to Austin’s first transportation network company (TNC) driver fair on Tuesday with a misleading email in his inbox.

“As the city has mentioned, (fingerprinting) will be free for now,” read Wagenman aloud from an email signed by ride-hailing company Get Me’s Austin city manager, Patricio Herrera.

Michelle Rivera, who used to drive part time for both Uber and Lyft, read aloud from a similar email. This one was from fledgling company Fare.

Driver Kurt Wagenman registers with ride-hailing company Wingz at the TNC Fair at ACC Highland Mall.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT News

“Remember,” Rivera read, “that the city is providing application and information to obtain free fingerprinting if you show up within the next 3 days.”

But as drivers soon found out, none of this was true. They would be expected to pay $39.95 to cover fingerprints done by Texas Department of Public Safety contractor MorphoTrust. These emails represent what has been some post-election confusion coming from both ride-hailing companies and the city.

Transportation Department Assistant Director Gordon Derr said Tuesday that the city does not yet have the funds to cover fingerprints for drivers. Plus, the ordinance backed by voters does not require the city to do so. It simply states, “The Austin Transportation Department may provide assistance to drivers with the cost of fingerprint collection.” (According to drivers, Uber and Lyft background checks were free for them.)

“We don’t have a line item in our budget to pay for them,” said Derr. “It would take an action of (City) Council.”

A TNC driver demonstrates an email that lead to confusion among drivers and TNC representatives.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT News

According to current rules, funds to cover driver fingerprints would come from fees paid by ride-hailing companies, which the city has not yet started to collect.

When pressed about promises made to drivers, Fare CEO Michael Leto said that the claim of city-funded fingerprinting had been gleaned from driver forums. Leto said the company will reimburse drivers the $39.95 in their first few paychecks.

Get Me representatives at Tuesday’s fair had not been authorized to talk to the media, and a call to a co-founder went unanswered.

Wagenman said the fingerprinting cost was not a problem for him, although he had been misled. After waiting in line for roughly an hour on Tuesday, it took Wagenman less than five minutes to sign up with airport-focused ride-hailing company Wingz. (A company representative said there will be a follow-up test and a fingerprint check to pass, but that Wingz will not be reimbursing drivers for the fingerprinting fee.) He then got in line for Get Me. After completing his registration there, Wagenman said he was headed to MorphoTrust to get fingerprinted.

This story is a part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.