Taxi drivers rally for protections at City Hall after 5th suicide in 5 months

Taxi driver Rajinder Singh demonstrates during a rally outside City Hall Tuesday calling on the city to address the financial crisis facing drivers.
Taxi driver Rajinder Singh demonstrates during a rally outside City Hall Tuesday calling on the city to address the financial crisis facing drivers. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michael Loccisano

More than 100 taxi and black car drivers rallied outside City Hall Tuesday to call for tighter regulations of the e-hail industry after a fifth licensed worker took his life in five months, according to advocates.

Led by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a group representing licensed Taxi & Limousine Commission drivers, ralliers called for a variety of new policies.

They included a cap on the number of vehicles from ride-hail services like Uber, a requirement for those companies to follow taxi meter rates and new city services for yellow cab medallion owners struggling with expenses.

The rally followed the death of Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow, a 56-year-old Queens medallion owner and cabdriver whose body was found in the East River this past weekend, after he had been missing for more than a week. Chow’s family members have said that Chow was struggling financially to pay off loans as his wife was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer last fall.

“Kenny as a husband, father, son, brother, friend, was just like many New Yorkers — he was an immigrant with a dream who unconditionally loved his family and he worked hard every day,” said Richard Chow, Kenny’s brother, who teared up as he spoke. “Kenny faced financial and other hardships that he was not able to control.”

The alliance said drivers Danilo Corporan Castillo, Nicanor Ochisor, Alfredo Perez and Douglas Schifter have also taken their own lives due to financial burdens as the value of taxi medallions, which were used to cap the number of taxis on city streets, has plummeted during the rise of Uber and its counterparts. The TLC now oversees 180,000 licensed drivers and another 130,000 licensed vehicles, a marked increase from 90,000 drivers and 50,000 vehicles in 2011, largely due to the rise in app-based services.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the workers alliance, said elected officials must take action to bring e-hail companies under tighter regulations more similar to the governance of the yellow cab industry. Doing so, she believes, would improve the quality of jobs for drivers in both the yellow and e-hail industries. Desai blames the current state of the industries on years of political inaction in addressing the new companies that have lobbied aggressively against regulations.

“We now have a saturation of tens of thousands of workers, even after working 10-, 12-, 14-hour shifts, [who] are talking about hunger and poverty and that’s not acceptable,” Desai said.

Though Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried and failed to cap the number of e-hail vehicles on the road during his first term, Tuesday’s rally came as the City Council under new leadership begins weighing regulations, including a yearlong cap on app-based services.

The council’s newly formed For-Hire Vehicle Committee is currently discussing eight bills related to the industry. Despite the various, wide-ranging pieces of legislation, the committee’s chairman, Bronx Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., said he believes the council is shaping a clear vision for regulation.

“The speaker (Corey Johnson) has indicated to me his support and his willingness to deal with the problem,” said Diaz, who enjoys a strong backing from taxi and livery drivers.

Both Johnson and de Blasio have signaled support in recent weeks for new regulations on the industry.

“These are painful stories and heartbreaking losses that no words will heal,” said Austin Finan, a mayoral spokesman, in a statement.

Johnson, in a statement, said his “heart breaks” for the family and friends. The council leader will be listening to all sides as discussions on new legislation progress, his spokesman said.

“At the Council, we are keenly aware that new pressures on the for-hire-vehicle industry are causing pain and difficulties for many of those who depend on it for their livelihood,” Johnson said. “We are taking a hard look at what changes can be made to protect these drivers.”

Alix Anfang, a spokeswoman for Uber, said in a statement that new vehicles were keeping up with a growing demand for rides and that a cap would have a negative impact on service in less dense areas of the city. She offered support for action to go after predatory lenders behind medallion sales.

“We are deeply saddened and our thoughts are with Mr. Chow’s family,” Anfang said. “Drivers who own individual medallions have been left behind by change and exploited by lenders and we support action that eases their financial burden.”

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi advised drivers to call the Driver Protection Unit at 212-676-1201 for assistance in finding financial counseling. Those coping with stress, depression or anxiety can call 888-NYC-Well or text “Well” to 65173 for free confidential mental health support in more than 200 languages.