Young, Successful, Smart And Dead: Black Engineer’s Suicide Invokes Working Conditions At Uber

Written by Dana Sanchez

Joseph Thomas, who was African American, may have experienced racism at Uber, according to his loved ones and their lawyer. Like many Silicon Valley companies, Uber employs only a handful of black people in technical jobs. Blacks account for 1 percent of its tech workers and none of its tech leaders, according to Uber’s first diversity report, released in March.

“If you put a hard-driving person on unrealistic tasks, it puts them in failure mode,” said the elder Joe Thomas, who said his son described a sort of brainwashing at Uber. “It makes them burn themselves out; like driving a Lamborghini in first gear.”

Joseph’s wife, Zecole Thomas, has filed a workers’ compensation claim seeking to hold Uber accountable for her husband’s mental decline.

Uber declined to comment on the legal dispute and said Thomas never complained to the company of extreme stress or racial discrimination.

From San Francisco Chronicle. Story by Carolyn Said.

Joseph Thomas thought he had it made when he landed a $170,000 job as a software engineer at Uber’s San Francisco headquarters last year.

But his time at Uber turned into a personal tragedy, one that will compel the ride-hailing company to answer questions before a judge about its aggressive work culture.

Always adept with computers, Joseph worked his way up the ladder at tech jobs in his native Atlanta, then at LinkedIn in Mountain View, where he was a senior site reliability engineer. He turned down an offer from Apple to go to Uber, because he felt he could grow more with the younger company and was excited about the chance to profit from stock options when it went public.

But at Uber, Thomas struggled in a way he’d never experienced in over a decade in technology. He worked long hours. He told his father and his wife that he felt immense pressure and stress at work, and was scared he’d lose his job. They urged him to see a psychiatrist. He told the doctor he was having panic attacks, trouble concentrating and near-constant anxiety. All suggested that he leave his job, but he was adamant that he could not.

“He was always the smartest guy in the room,” said his father, Joe Thomas. But while working at Uber, “he went down the tubes. He became someone with very little confidence in himself. The guy just fell apart.”

“It’s hard to explain, but he wasn’t himself at all,” said his wife, Zecole Thomas. “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.”

One day in late August, Zecole came home from dropping their boys off at school. Joseph was sitting in his car in the garage. She got into the passenger seat to talk to him.

Then she saw the blood.

Joseph had shot himself. He died in the hospital two days later, a week before he would have turned 34.

His father and widow are convinced that the work environment and stress at Uber triggered his suicide. Zecole Thomas has filed a workers’ compensation claim seeking to hold Uber accountable for her husband’s mental decline.

“No family should go through the unspeakable heartbreak the Thomas family has experienced,” said Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend. “Our prayers and thoughts are with them.”

Uber’s work culture has come under scrutiny after explosive revelations about the world’s most valuable startup. In February, software engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post about sexual harassment and sexism at Uber and said its human resources department ignored complaints.

At least three former employees have filed lawsuits alleging sexual harassment or verbal abuse from Uber managers, according to the New York Times, which said other current and former employees were also considering legal action.

Uber denied the benefits claim through its insurance carrier. In California, workers’ compensation usually does not cover psychiatric injuries until after six months of employment. Joseph Thomas had worked slightly less than five months at Uber when he killed himself.

But there is an exception to the six-month rule. It doesn’t apply “if the psychiatric injury is caused by a sudden and extraordinary employment condition,” according to California law.

Read more at San Francisco Chronicle.

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