Empower is less expensive than Uber or Lyft. Here’s why DC says it’s violating city law

D.C.-area residents have another alternative to Uber or Lyft called Empower — but, according to D.C.’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles, Empower has refused to register with the department to operate in the District.

DFHV issued a cease-and-desist letter in November 2020, which Empower appealed, and told drivers for Empower that they would be subject to “DFHV enforcement including vehicle impoundment.”

The Virginia-based company says it’s “transforming the gig economy” by providing drivers with 100% of their earnings from riders’ fares.

“We provide software and support services to drivers who want to build and run their own businesses,” Empower CEO Joshua Sear told WTOP.

Sear’s company is a third-party vendor that lets drivers set their own rates and be paid directly in-app by riders.

“In exchange, drivers pay Empower a subscription fee, which is significantly less than Uber/Lyft are withholding from drivers in taking over 40% of the fare on average from each ride,” the company said on its website. “Empower takes ZERO commission from rides.”

Riders can access the service through the company’s app.

“DFHV discourages the public from accepting rides on the EMPOWER APP as there could be seriously negative consequences for the passengers,” the department said.

DFHV said it requires rideshare companies to register with the city to keep the riding public safe. In an email to WTOP the department said in part:

  • Registration ensures that drivers are properly insured in case of a crash.
  • [DFHV] provides rules against discrimination. And allows DFHV to take complaints and work with the company to prevent discrimination due to race or sexual orientation.
  • Registered companies also provide accessible apps for people with disabilities, must service the entire District, must provide background checks for drivers, and use a standard trade dress.

According to DFHV, since Empower refuses to register, riders have no way to know if their drivers are cleared, insured and will take them safely to their destination. Additionally, it said riders have no way to make complaints.

“We’ve attempted to work with the Uber-funded DFHV to make sure that drivers who wish to drive for themselves, in competition with Uber and Lyft, comply with whatever regulations are necessary,” Sear said.

Sear told WTOP that since the order was issued, drivers have provided over four million rides to more than 200,000 riders, and even increased access to affordable transportation in some of the most historically underserved communities in the District.

Sears said drivers are fully vetted.

“Drivers agree to provide the results of a background check that’s conducted by one of the largest providers of background checks to Empower as part of the terms and conditions,” Sear said.

As for customer complaints, Sear said, the business has a robust team to handle that.

“If you have an issue with a ride as a driver or as a rider, you’ll find that it’s a whole lot easier to get someone on the phone,” Sear said. “The District hasn’t presented to us a single piece of evidence of a safety concern.”

Sandra Jones

Sandra Jones is an Anchor/Reporter for WTOP. She’s been in the news industry for more than two decades.

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