The wife and children of a 33-year-old Uber engineer who committed suicide last summer are seeking worker's compensation benefits from the ride-hailing company where he worked. The Chronicle had the story, although the proceedings of the case aren't public record, and they paint a tragic portrait of a family's sudden loss and perhaps of the problematic work environment at Uber.
Zecole Thomas blames the company's aggressive work culture, the recent subject of several exposés, for her husband Joseph's precipitous decline in mental health. As the Thomas family is black, Zecole also believes Uber's non-diverse staff, especially in the engineering department, created a particularly isolating environment for her husband. But because Joseph Thomas worked at the company for just under five months, rather than the state-required six, Uber has so far denied benefits claims to his family through its insurance carrier.
That case is before California’s Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, and Thomas' former supervisor is being deposed as part of it.“We think it was stress and harassment induced by his job, between him being one of the few African Americans there, working around the clock and the culture of Uber,” SF Attorney Richard Richardson, who is representing Zecole Thomas in the case, told the Chronicle. “ [He] couldn’t talk about it to anyone because of nondisclosure agreements,” Richardson asserts.
Pointing to the law, Richardson says that "psychiatric injury... caused by a sudden and extraordinary employment condition," would entitle the Thomas family to benefits regardless of the length of his employment. They seek $722,000 as a lump sum and the rest in weekly checks $1,100 until the Thomas boys, currently 7 and 9, turn 18.
“No family should go through the unspeakable heartbreak the Thomas family has experienced,” Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend told the Chronicle “Our prayers and thoughts are with them.” Behrend didn't comment on the case but did claim that Thomas had never complained internally about stress or discrimination at the company.
"Man words can’t really describe," Thomas confided to a friend in a Facebook message a month before shooting himself in the kitchen of the Pittsburg home he and his family had recently bought. I’m not dead but I wouldn’t describe myself as ok.” Thomas was previously an employee at LinkedIn and had chosen Uber over an offer from Apple. “The sad thing is this place (Uber) has broken me to the point where I don’t have the strength to look for another job,” Noticing his depressed state, Thomas's wife and father encouraged him to speak to a psychiatrist and quit his job.
Zecole Thomas has sold their home and moved with her children to North Carolina. “I just don’t understand it," she tells the Chronicle. He was young, successful, smart; he had everything going for himself. I never in my life thought I would be without him. It’s devastating.”