When drivers with the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance rallied outside Uber’s Long Island City office on Monday, one very simple sign underscored their argument. The sign had a picture of a rose and six names of professional drivers who committed suicide since late last year.
Their argument is that financial stress played a role in the deaths, and drivers need help to navigate a dramatically changing industry.
On Wednesday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on a package of bills regulating app-hail cars — meaning Ubers, Lyfts and their competitors. Such regulations were attempted early in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure but were successfully beat back by the young tech titans. Now, the number of for-hire vehicles has skyrocketed past 80,000, compared to just over 10,000 taxis, according to a recent study. That enormous volume, changing opinions on regulating tech platforms, and the struggles of drivers to secure a living have set the stage for Take 2.
The proposed legislation includes a minimum wage for drivers, and a one-year cap on most new for-hire vehicles while a study is conducted. That cap is opposed by the app companies, which say the restriction would change when and where cars are available.
The struggle for cabdrivers
Arguments about the impact of policy prescriptions aside, the struggle is clear for the cabbies, Uber-Lyft-partners, and other drivers who make a living shuttling passengers around New York. Each has slightly different problems, but the overarching issue is that their jobs are getting more difficult and their pay is not great. On Monday, one of the rose signs was held by Richard Chow, whose brother Kenny Chow was one of the drivers who killed himself this year.
Richard, a taxi driver like his brother was, says the situation is brutal. With so many cars competing for passengers, he says he might drive 30 minutes or an hour without picking up a fare. The increasing traffic slows things down further.
Richard, like his brother, is among the particularly unlucky workers who paid hundreds of thousands for a taxi medallion allowing him to operate his own cab. But with the rise of app competitors, medallion values have cratered. Richard is 60 and says he had planned to retire at 65, but medallion values have sunk too low for him to recoup his investment by then. He figures he’ll need to keep driving — until 70, 75, who knows — dealing with the back pains and bladder issues that come from driving for more than 10 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.
The legislation package doesn’t do much for indebted medallion owner-operators directly, but two bills call for study of the problem and outreach about financial support.
Trending app-hail cars
Other drivers at the protest spoke of their own driving woes: long days at the beck and call of the apps, a search for a new job as Uber driver pay decreased.
Then there was Yassine Benzinba, 27, maybe the most hopeful person in attendance. He wasn’t really in attendance exactly. He’d just walked out of the swanky and crowded Uber office into the heat. “Today is my last day” as a taxi driver, he said, grinning. He’d just put in his paperwork to drive for Uber.
Benzinba said he had immigrated from Morocco about five years ago, worked selling falafel among other jobs before settling into the taxi business. He leased a medallion and began driving — things were good, he liked being behind the wheel — but it had recently become too tough.
He likened the daily hustle of looking for fares to “hunting.” Yellow cabdrivers had to strain themselves, sometimes driving almost recklessly, searching for someone who wanted a ride. Benzinba recalled driving at night and seeing people on the street looking on their phones before hopping in their app cars. No taxi luck there.
“This is not competition,” he said. It was too one-sided. Uber was taking over. It was so easy. He wanted to express his solidarity with cabdrivers but he had to find a way to make an easier living.
“What are you gonna do,” he shrugged: “You have to join the club.”