As Palm Beach County Commissioners are trying to figure out a compromise to regulate Uber, the ride-sharing company may have shut down the accounts of at least two of the county's compliance officers on purpose. According to city inspectors, Uber allegedly shut down accounts and apps of Palm Beach officials to avoid enforcement of citations.
Commissioners recently halted a court decision on whether Uber would be allowed to do business in Palm Beach, so that it could find an agreement to have regulations set in place such as insurance requirements and criminal background checks, among other things.
Uber is basically an app with which you can request a private car with driver, then name your price. You can also rate the driver. This service has upended the traditional taxicab business in big cities where it has become popular.
But, county officials have said that cabdrivers and other chauffeur services must pass inspections twice a year as well as undergo background checks and have additional insurance -- something local cabdrivers were concerned about when Uber first started making plans to expand into Palm Beach. The problem is, ridesharing services have been widely unregulated, and personal auto insurance doesn't cover commercial drivers.
Uber was supposed to have suspended operations while the county decides what to do. If an Uber driver happens to get caught doing business in the county, he or she is facing a fine of up to $500, and possibly having their car impounded by the county.
The company has found itself in this kind of a pickle in other parts of the country, including Broward County and Orlando. Officials are saying to avoid getting caught, Uber is blocking their accounts.
"I noticed my account had been blocked," Palm Beach county's vehicle-for-hire compliance officer, Jose Esquivel, tells New Times. "So I asked another compliance officer if I could use their phone to access the app, and he tells me his account was shut down too."
Uber has been difficult to comply with the county, Esquivel says. And now he believes they've figured out that the officers were using the app to track down drivers in order to issue citations.
In January, the county launched a massive sting to issue citations to Uber's drivers who were caught operating without proper permits, ID badges, decals and liability insurance. Drivers were cited a total of $44,000 in fines.
"The last time we tried to use the app was sometime in January," Esquivel says. "My account has been banned since."
For their part, the officers have not contacted Uber nor filed a complaint against the company. Nor has Uber contacted them. It's all circumstantial, but it's not the first time Uber has been accused of using such a tactic.
Back in January, the Brisbane Times reported that Uber blocked government officials in Australia in the same way.
Esquivel says the same has happened to officials in Miami and Orlando.
For now, Esquivel says the compliance officers have new phones and are in wait-and-see mode as to what the county will do. He also says no citations will be issued for the time being. But he says the blocked accounts are no surprise.
"We figured this would happen as soon as we ramped up our efforts to hand out citations," he says.
New Times' request for a comment from Uber has yet to be returned.