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. He and his wife, Zecole, had just bought a Spanish-style house in Pittsburg, where they were living the American dream with their two young sons. A handsome and accomplished man, Thomas reminded some people of Tiger Woods for both his good looks and his drive to succeed.
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 Thomas 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 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.
“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 Thomas, who was African American, may have experienced racism as well, 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.
Uber declined to comment on the legal dispute and said Thomas never complained to the company of extreme stress or racial discrimination.
“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, which said other current and former employees were also considering legal action.
Even early investors Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor posted an open letter to Uber blasting it for “a culture plagued by disrespect, exclusionary cliques, lack of diversity, and tolerance for bullying and harassment of every form.”
Uber said it took the allegations seriously and hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate its workplace for issues of sexism, diversity and inclusion. That report is pending.
In the case of Joseph Thomas, medical records from two East Bay psychiatrists he visited in the weeks before his suicide show that he reported job-related “high anxiety,” panic attacks, difficulty concentrating and insomnia.
About a month before his suicide, Joseph Thomas disclosed his work stress in a Facebook chat to a close friend of more than a decade, Neil Mirchandani.
“Man words can’t really describe. I’m not dead but I wouldn’t describe myself as ok,” Thomas wrote, according to screenshots of the chat provided by Mirchandani.
“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,” Thomas wrote.
“Joseph was such a strong personality,” said Mirchandani. “But he was a softie on the inside; when he was around a small dog or my daughter, he’d melt like a little kid. He was the last person I would ever think would” commit suicide.
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.
San Francisco attorney Richard Richardson, who represents Zecole Thomas and her sons, said Thomas’ situation may be one of those exceptions.
“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,” Richardson said. “And he couldn’t talk about it to anyone because of nondisclosure agreements.”
The case is still in early stages. Uber refused Richardson’s request to depose Thomas’ immediate boss, but in mid-April an administrative law judge who oversees workers’ compensation cases said the supervisor must submit to a deposition. Unlike cases in a court of law, cases before California’s Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board are not public record.
The benefits could amount to about $722,000, part as a lump sum and part in weekly checks of $1,100 until both boys, currently ages 7 and 9, are 18, Richardson said.
For Zecole Thomas, mourning the loss of the husband she met in 11th grade, it was “baffling and confusing” to be denied workers’ compensation. “He had a great work ethic; he devoted his life to work,” she said. “I was sure they would reciprocate.”
Exacerbating that, Thomas’ life insurance policy will not pay out because he died by suicide.
She sold their dream house — the first they’d owned — because California was too expensive, and moved to North Carolina. She’s working as a project coordinator with a small company and pursuing a master’s degree in analytics and cybersecurity. “I’m trying to rebuild my life and generate enough income to provide for my two children,” she said.
“I just don’t understand it. 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.”