“I’m not dead but I wouldn’t describe myself as ok,” Joseph Thomas, an accomplished young black engineer at Uber, told a friend over Facebook in July 2016.
About a month later, Thomas shot and killed himself. Now, his wife, Zecole Thomas, blames his employer, one of the largest tech companies in Silicon Valley, for fostering a workplace environment so intense that it left her husband “broken” and without a sense of purpose or self-esteem, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Zecole Thomas is suing Uber for $720,000 in workman’s compensation she says her family is owed, per USA Today. Citing California law, Uber previously denied Thomas’s claim because her husband worked for fewer than six months with the company, exempting him from coverage for psychiatric injuries.
But California’s law provides an exemption to this rule if “the psychiatric injury is caused by a sudden and extraordinary employment condition.” And Thomas’s lawyers are arguing that is the case.
Specifically, they are arguing that Uber fostered a toxic work environment that broke down Joseph Thomas’s self-esteem and caused him to suffer panic attacks, insomnia and anxiety about losing his job, according to the Chronicle.
“It’s hard to explain, but he wasn’t himself at all,” Zecole Thomas told the Chronicle. “He’d say things like, ‘My boss doesn’t like me.’ His personality changed totally; he was horribly concerned about his work, to the point it was almost unbelievable. He was saying he couldn’t do anything right.”
And it was not as though Thomas was a novice in the tech world. He had worked for social networking site LinkedIn and turned down an offer from Apple before joining Uber, per USA Today. But something about working at Uber crushed his ambition, his wife said. When his therapist suggested he get a new job, he said “I cannot do it, I cannot think,’” his wife told USA Today.
What’s more, the family’s lawyers say there was an element of racism to Uber’s workplace culture that further harmed Thomas. According to a diversity report released by Uber in March, just one percent of its employees working in its tech department are black, and one of those employees are in leadership positions, according to Mashable.
“I believe there was a cutthroat environment that had tones of racism in it, in that one big indicator of success is mentorship and leadership,” the lawyer representing Thomas’s family told USA Today. “But there is no real black leadership at Uber to help a young African-American employee. I don’t think Uber cares about things like that.”
In response, Uber has said Thomas never filed a formal complaint about racial discrimination or workplace stress, according to the Chronicle.
“No family should go through the unspeakable heartbreak the Thomas family has experienced,” a Uber spokeswoman said in a statement. “Our prayers and thoughts are with them.”
Zecole Thomas’s lawsuit marks just the latest crisis for Uber. From video of CEO Travis Kalanick yelling and swearing at a driver over low wages to the #DeleteUber campaign that started as a result of Kalanick’s ties to President Donald Trump, the ride-sharing giant has been stumbling throughout 2017. Kalanick has since announced he is looking to hire a chief operating officer to provide him with “leadership help.”
At the moment, the company is undergoing an internal investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder after a former employee, Susan Fowler, accused Uber of protecting a boss who repeatedly sexually harassed women.
Even the company’s ridesharing services have come under fire, after it was revealed that Uber used secret technology, called "Greyball," to avoid regulation and law enforcement. The New York Times also reported that in 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook threatened to yank Uber from the App Store after he found out Kalanick’s team had been using technology to identify and track phones that had deleted Uber, a serious breach of Apple’s privacy rules.
Uber’s president Jeff Jones also quit the company in mid-March after six months on the job. According to Recode, Jones’s decision came after he decided the wave of bad press and crises were “not what he signed up for.”