Drivers urge DPU to alter background checks

Rejected Uber and Lyft drivers say unlimited reach discriminates

EDWARD HARUNK SAID driving for Uber gave him the flexibility to take care of his sick wife and bring her to doctor’s appointments whenever she needed.

“Being an Uber driver enabled me, as a sole caregiver, to set my own time and allowed me to focus on my wife’s challenges,” the 59-year-old Wellesley resident, a former professional in the technology industry, told officials from the Department of Public Utilities at a hearing on regulations for transportation network company drivers.

But earlier this year, that came to an end when he was prevented from working for Uber after two driving violations from 1977 and 1981 showed up on his criminal record and DPU officials denied him certification.

He said the violations were a drunken driving on Cape Cod when he was 19 in 1977 and then a driving to endanger in 1981, again on the Cape, with an accompanying drunken driving charge dismissed. Harunk admitted he was a partier when he was younger but said in the last 36 years, his record has been clean.

He was one of hundreds of people who packed the public hearing to urge the DPU to rewrite the regulations. The DPU was given oversight of transportation network companies such as Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and others under the Economic Development law enacted last year and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker. While legislators rejected fingerprints for drivers, they mandated state-run background checks and left it to the DPU to determine the outline.

Former drivers, many of them minorities or immigrants, and advocates say the regulations are too sweeping and allow DPU to “look back” indefinitely into CORI files and reject drivers for even minor, nonviolent offenses that don’t prevent them from being taxi or school bus drivers. DPU has denied licenses to more than 8,200 applicants out of nearly 71,000 who have applied around the state. About 500 of nearly 1,500 appeals have been approved.

Harunk said he had his CORI record sealed in February but it was too late. Like many others, he urged the DPU to adopt “look-back” regulations that correspond to CORI regulations for private employers with time limitations.

“We ask that you limit the look-back period for certain offenses to the statutory standard of seven years,” Tom Maguire, general manager for Uber New England, told DPU officials. ”The new indefinite, unlimited look-back period created by the Administration exceeds the intent of the statute and limits access to economic opportunities for those who have criminal records but who have reformed their lives and behavior and deserve the opportunity to earn a living,”

A number of advocates testified in favor of changes to the regulations, saying the rules discriminate against minorities who have a higher incidence of run-ins with police, especially for nonviolent drug offenses, and the records follow them for years. Some advocates even called for the elimination of any background check.

“I’ve been told as a woman, these regulations are there for my safety,” said Mallory Hanora of Families for Justice as Healing, a nonprofit advocacy group seeking to end incarceration of women. “Denying people with a criminal record [the right to earn a living] does not protect me. I think it’s immoral to punish people for the rest of their lives. We believe there should be no look-back. If a person has a current Massachusetts license, they should be able to drive.”

But not all who testified supported changing the regulations. Several taxi and livery drivers asked commissioners not only to leave the regulations in place, but to tighten them to bring them in line with the cab industry, such as placing a cap on the number of drivers and requiring them to be registered in Massachusetts.

“If one wanted to recommend an increase in taxis, we’d have to go through a long process in Boston and then the Legislature,” said cab driver Steven Goldberg. “TNC vehicles are currently uncapped and increasing by the thousands. We think you should cap the number. Our industry has already been hit with a 40 percent drop in revenue. It is fundamentally wrong to have a part-time driver in a Toyota Corolla from Tucson, Arizona, taking business away.”

Vartkes Moushigian, who owns and drives his own cab, showed officials a variety of state and local issued licenses and certificates he and other taxi drivers are required to obtain. He said the argument that minorities are being disproportionately affected by the regulations overlooks the number of drivers of color in the taxi industry.

“I’m a citizen, I’m a veteran,” he said, echoing what some Uber and Lyft drivers said about their own backgrounds. “I don’t have the numbers but as far as taxi drivers, I’d say somewhere between 70-80 percent are minorities. They’re being hurt and they’re trying to do it the right way.”

Angela O’Connor, chairman of the DPU, was the only one of the three commissioners to attend the hearing, joined by legal counsel and an aide. She made no comments and the agency extended public comments until June 6 before making any decision.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Holly Montero of Worcester, a mother of four who lost her chance to drive for Lyft when her record came back showing a years-old charge of driving with an expired inspection sticker, said the agency needs to take into account the benefit to the state to streamline the regulations. Allowing those with minor, nonviolent, and decades-old offenses to be gainfully employed reduces the burden on state-funded social programs.

“We’re all here because we all want to make a living for our families,” said Montero, who has two children with disabilities requiring constant care form her or her husband. “I want to be able to help my husband, support our family but be there for our kids. I’m not one of those who wants to live on those programs. Driving for Lyft was amazing. It gave me the opportunity to drive when I wanted to.”