(Photo courtesy of Flickr.)
Five years ago, Melissa Callahan had a moment of clarity. She realized that, despite working long hours, in often-intolerable conditions, in a skilled position, she was earning very little money.
Callahan drives a cab in Chicago, and her moment of clarity came while waiting for a fare at O’Hare Airport. She began her day as she would any other, by going through the lengthy process of picking up her cab at the garage. Next, she drove to O’Hare and paid the fee that the City of Chicago charges cabs that service that prime location. Then Callahan joined the airport’s taxi line to wait for a fare—a wait that means hours of unpaid time in the cab.
By then, she had spent over three hours without getting a paying fare. That’s when a City of Chicago inspector decided to “spot check” all the cabs in line. Unfortunately for Callahan, the city official noticed that the “Check Engine” light had just turned on in her car. The inspector pulled Callahan out of line and revoked her chauffeur’s license pending her paying a fine. Unable to take a fare, Callahan returned the car to the garage. She still had to pay for that day’s lease. She contested the charge at an administrative hearing, but lost, and was required to pay Chicago $75 to get her license returned. After seven hours on the job, Callahan found herself almost $100 in the hole.
That’s when Callahan asked herself whether these working conditions were fair. She concluded that they were not and, like many employees in stressful, low-wage jobs, began exploring how she could fight back.
But unlike other employees, Callahan is not an “employee,” at least not according to the City of Chicago, the entity responsible for the regulating and licensing the city’s cab drivers. Instead, she and other cab drivers are considered “independent contractors.” Each of the city’s 14,000 taxis is a small business on wheels.
These small businesses are hardly lucrative. “We make some cash, but somehow we give it all back to the City,” says Ibramhim, a six-year veteran of cab-driving in Chicago, who asked that his last name not be used. “I feel like we collect money for the City.” When accounting for their many expenses, Chicago’s taxi drivers are among the lowest paid workers in the city. According to the sole comprehensive public study on their working conditions, the majority of Chicago drivers work twenty-five days per thirty-day month, in thirteen-hour shifts. On average, these drivers earn $4.38 per hour, which is approximately half the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25, and 60 percent of the federal minimum wage. Ibrahim works seventy-plus-hour weeks just to earn a subsistence living.
No one is responsible for paying cabbies a “minimum wage,” because these drivers are not considered employees. But Callahan and a group of Chicago cab drivers are challenging that long-held assumption. Under the name “Cab Drivers for Justice,” or, as most call it, “Cabbies for Justice,” they are pursuing what could be a landmark legal case. The Cabbies are arguing that not only have they been misclassified as independent contractors, and that the City of Chicago is their employer.
Are taxi-drivers employees of the City? They’re not paid by the City of Chicago, and they don’t get to take advantage of the City’s health benefits or pension plan. Theoretically they can make their own hours. They don’t have any clearly identifiable “boss”—they lease their cabs from companies like Checker and Yellow, but those groups don’t play much of a supervisory role.