The New York City taxi trade is in crisis, with an increasingly competitive labor market making it ever more difficult for drivers to make a living. Several drivers have already committed suicide this year, and labor advocates are demanding that the city respond to the industry’s economic squeeze. Drivers of all stripes—from the real-estate agent moonlighting with Uber to the yellow cabbie working off medallion debt—share common needs for stable work, but they all are hamstrung by a broken regulatory system.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s (NYTWA) program to promote sustainable driving jobs would ensure one fair set of labor standards for the whole industry, including both traditional yellow-taxi and app services. The NYTWA hopes to address longstanding issues of economic equity for traditional yellow cabs, as well as the disruptions the industry has faced since Uber has jammed the streets with new vehicles under lax regulations.
“For five years a lack of regulation has created such an imbalance in this industry,” says NYTWA organizer and co-founder Bhairavi Desai, “and it’s such a vicious race to the bottom. And something needs to be done to help keep whole the entire workforce.”
If the city does not intervene now, labor advocates warn that we may see worse than drivers’ financial devastation. Two longtime drivers have committed suicide in the past few months alone; one of them, Doug Schifter, was an activist who had denounced the rideshare industry as a grave threat to workers’ livelihoods, before killing himself in public.
With the streets saturated with a freewheeling for-hire fleet of some 100,000 cars—over two-thirds of them app-based vehicles—the crisis facing the driver workforce has been punctuated by reports of extreme social despair. Facing punishing nonstop schedules, drivers are sinking deep into debt and sometimes resorting to emergency appeals on services like GoFundMe. The volatility of a hyper-competitive market, combined with the everyday costs of leasing, gas, and tolls, is fueling drivers’ anxiety. Rideshare apps have introduced new uncertainty to fares as they often receive up-front payments calculated via app, rather than a consistent metered fare. Cabbies and app-based drivers alike risk being stiffed by customers, slapped with traffic tickets, or dinged by passing bicycles. The threat of assault and robbery is an everyday hazard, along with the more chronic fear of getting their paychecks shorted by their licensing company.
Rather than the regulatory whack-a-mole that has polarized Uber drivers and cabbies, the NYTWA, an informal labor union for taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers, is focused on “protecting full-time work and creating livable incomes.” Unlike traditional yellow-cab drivers, Uber drivers have shifting pay scales because of the app’s “up-front” pricing, so the NYTWA’s goal is to set a uniform base wage under a standard fare based on “the yellow cab and green cab metered taxi rate…as the minimum wage floor.” The fare standards must be inclusive, Desai adds, because if app-based drivers remain on an independent wage system, “where does that leave rest of the workforce that is literally dying? It would be so unconscionable if the City Council and the mayor were not to have a comprehensive approach.”
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Another pillar of the NYTWA’s proposal would be establishing a long-overdue healthcare plan, providing basic insurance through a fare-based subsidy from each driver. Generally both regular taxi and app-based drivers are classified as independent contractors, a non-employee category that excludes them from basic fair-labor protections, although their licensing company governs their working conditions and their vehicles turn out to be a debt burden rather than an asset. App-based drivers typically have even fewer protections, as app companies have negotiated various exemptions and separate standards in different cities. While New York’s app-based drivers are more closely regulated under the TLC than in many other cities, the NYTWA’s plan calls for straightforward rule changes that place all drivers under the same standard, like traffic laws: App-service drivers would be subjected to the same corporate licensing standards as livery-cab companies are currently, as well as vehicle-financing regulations that are comparable to those imposed on the medallion-based yellow-taxi fleet.
The City Council is considering new legislation to curb the growth of app-based services and boost wages for drivers, but the NYTWA wants stricter limits on future expansion of the rideshare industry.
To promote decent full-time work, the NYTWA’s plan would also cap the total number of ride-share vehicles on the streets. License granting and renewal would require assurance that drivers would receive an average of 60 weekly trips and a certain level of fares. App-based drivers would receive the equivalent of at least 80 percent of the metered fare to ensure parity with regular cabbies. Vehicle leasing costs would similarly be capped at $275 per week, with total payments not to exceed $43,000. Beyond that, no company would consume more than 40 percent of a driver’s total income.
To prevent wage theft, all drivers would be entitled to sue for damages if unfairly denied pay, and could pursue damages as a class if city authorities found a company had engaged in “systematic and widespread wage theft.” Uber has already faced civil suits in various cities for wage theft and other regulatory violations. But as an app service that markets itself as a tool of the gig economy rather than an employer, the company has largely escaped local taxes and employment rules: “They have just taken, and they’ve had to give nothing in return,” Desai says. “It’s such a public-policy failure.”
The underlying politics of economic justice are stoking public outrage. While Uber’s CEO anticipates netting six digits this year, drivers lack union rights and struggle with precarious working conditions and erratic on-call pick-up schedules. A controversial study by MIT researchers estimates that, with maintenance expenses, drivers’ net earnings sometimes fall below their states’ minimum wage.
Black car driver Schifter was struggling to stave off poverty, driving exhausting day-long shifts, until he shot himself in front of City Hall. Before his suicide, he posted on Facebook: “Companies do not care how they abuse us just so the executives get their bonuses…. They count their money, and we are driven down into the streets we drive, becoming homeless and hungry.”
Weeks later, Nicanor Ochisor, a Romanian-born medallion-taxi operator who supported his family by sharing taxi shifts with his wife, also took his own life. Years ago, middle-aged hired-car owners like Ochisor and Schifter might still have been able to earn a middle-class livelihood.
We’ll never know why exactly their lives took such a depressing turn this year, but today’s mean streets seem to have hastened their path to despair.