A Spanish-speaking Uber driver was fined $250 at Miami International Airport Sunday morning for violating a county requirement that drivers be able to communicate in English.
The alleged violation left the driver, Carmen Hechevarría, complaining of unfair treatment in a county where Census figures show 73 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home at least some of the time. Uber said it has never required drivers to be able to speak English, saying the English-language app drivers use to communicate with passengers complies with Miami-Dade’s language rule.
“It says they have to communicate in English,” Uber spokesman Javier Correoso said of the county rule. “It doesn’t say they have to speak English.”
Telemundo 51 first reported the citation, including cellphone video Hechevarría recorded showing an airport security officer, in Spanish, explaining why he was issuing her a ticket.
“I felt discriminated against,” Hechevarría told Telemundo, as reported by Channel 6.
Karla Damian, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade’s Transportation Department, which regulates for-hire vehicles, said the violation is hardly rare. The county has cited about 40 drivers for not meeting county rules regarding English.
Miami-Dade commissioners approved the English-language provision when they adopted county legislation in May 2016 authorizing Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies to compete with taxis. English proficiency has been a longstanding requirement for Miami-Dade taxi drivers, and the county’s “Uber law” states ride-hailing drivers shall “be able to communicate in the English language.”
While hard fought, the county’s Uber law is on the verge of being pushed aside by Florida legislation that bars local governments from regulating ride-hailing companies in most circumstances. The Florida law does not include English-language requirements, but it does not go into effect until July 1.
That means the county’s requirements on English were in effect when Hechevarría was issued her citation. On Sunday, an MIA officer monitoring traffic at the airport saw Hechevarría letting passengers out on the curb. After saying good morning in English to Hechevarría, the officer said the driver didn’t respond.
“She looked at me like she did not understand me,” MIA officer Detra Johnson wrote. Johnson called over a Spanish-speaking colleague to translate. “The more he spoke to her,” Johnson wrote, “the more he realized she could not speak or understand English.”
The incident highlights the unique problems Uber faces at the Miami airport, one of its most popular destinations. With a vast terminal and multiple curbs available for pick-up, passengers often find they need to contact a driver by phone to narrow down where to go — and even which of the waiting Uber cars is for them.
Uber is pushing airport officials to designate a holding area where drivers could wait for hails, a move designed to cut delays in pick-up times. The company also wants signs at the airport directing passengers where they should wait for a driver.
The Florida law carves out room for local governments to control how ride-hailing companies operate at airports and seaports, leaving Miami-Dade some leverage after July 1. The MIA deal could be wrapped into a settlement of more than $3 million in fines Miami-Dade issued to Uber drivers during the two years the company operated without a county ride-hailing law. County and Uber representatives say they expect an agreement on the fines to be brought before the County Commission in July.
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