South Asians depended on the taxi industry to pursue the American dream and now even that is at risk with in the time of COVID-19

Photo by Fernanda Caetano on Unsplash

Taxi drivers around New York are getting even more restless because while the pandemic has shut everything down, creditors are still demanding that taxi drivers pay for the medallions that they took out loans for. This week taxi drivers shut down the area around New York City Hall on Wednesday to put more pressure on Mayor Deblasio to provide more solutions for taxi drivers who are facing the prospect of not being able to pay back their loans and defaulting on their creditors but also the fact that in a pandemic they are in a very precarious position and not very well protected. With social distancing measures in place and the lack of foot traffic from tourists and business owneers, now taxi drivers are finding it increasingly difficult to make their payments.

According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance who are on the forefront of organizing actions pertaining to advocacy for taxi workers, ridership has dropped between 80% and 90% because people have not been taking either public transportation or the taxi. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is in a similar situation and is facing a $10 billion dollar shortfall.

Growing up in Queens, I was surrounded by taxi drivers for many blocks every one of my neighbors almost was making their living by driving a yellow taxi. For many this was a critical lifeline into making it into the middle class or even to manage expenses that came with living in America and getting their American dream. Often times, students who would be taking a break from their studies or have completed their studies were driving a taxi until they either got a job or their semester started again.

Along with discussions of school reopening and opening up restaurants for diners, the other industry that is not being talked enough about is the taxi industry which is feeling the fallout from a lack of ridership due to the pandemic and the infiltration of Uber and Lyft into the New York City market.

The lack of a plan from the Deblasio administration in addressing the crisis of driver suicides, the high cost of paying back loans, while supporting a family is definitely a crisis in itself. According to AM New York, some of the issues that taxi drivers have been expressing is the lack of work outside the taxi industry, to the problem of potentially being exposed to Covid through a passenger in a tight space like a taxi, and the lack of protections for taxi drivers when it comes to ensuring that they are able to pay the loans back in a time that that is different from COVID-19. They also mentioned that:

A survey by the group found that 90 percent of drivers have active loans. Among them, 70 percent were making all medallion payments in full before March 1st, while another 20 percent were paying steadily even if not always in full. The drivers leading the protest have been collectively paying almost $700,000 per month to their lenders with a collective debt of $132,804,824.70.

The New York Post covered yesterdays protest in front of City Hall yesterday, and were asking drivers why they felt the city needed to take urgent action. One driver said:

The protesters collectively owe $132 million to various banks, the alliance said — including the three targeted on Thursday: Medallion Financial, Aspire and NY Commercial Bank.

“Somebody told me my medallion is worth $50,000 or $75,000. I owe $436,000,” said Brooklynite Jean Tannis, 69, a taxi medallion owner since 1987.

CREDIT: New York Post/Photograph by Stephen Yang

The taxi alliance put some points that they thought would help address the problem the drivers are facing. One of them is restructuring loans up to 125,000, in forgiveness of another debt the city should sell taxis at public auction for a minimum bid based on the balance of the loan that was owed (AM New York and NYC Taxi Drivers Alliance).

Attorney General of New York Letitia James in her lawsuit against the city of New York, demanded “restitution to drivers up to $150,000 for loss money based on "predatory lending and a failure to regulate app based companies like Uber and Lyft."

The City of New York did some things to help drivers find work but also provide much-needed relief to other New Yorkers around the city.

  1. As the New York Post reports, the City of New York offered essential workers taxi trips to get to and from their shifts without it taking more time than needed, due to the shut down of nightly service on the train by 11,000 commuters who regularly made the trip. https://nypost.com/2020/08/21/mta-scraps-free-cab-offer-for-workers-impacted-by-subway-closures/
  2. According to the NYC Engagement Portal: Taxi Drivers could earn $53 per route in delivering critically needed food supplies to New Yorkers across the city. https://cv19engagementportal.cityofnewyork.us/#/display/5e7634997ad67502161607c2
  3. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also set out guidelines for how to asses driving operations: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/rideshare-drivers-for-hire.html

In the last election cycle, Joy Chowdhry, a gig worker, showed in real time the issues he has been dealing with as a gig worker and the lack of protections in place -including the lack of health insurance- that comes with working with a precarious working situation.

Joy Chowdhry, ran a campaign for the State Assembly District 34 on a campaign of bringing relief and support to his community.

The solidarity the issues that were championed by Joy, found some resonance in Canada. He tapped into a Canadian lawmaker of Tibetan descent, who shared the same opinion that the world gig workers are being sold out and not being advocated enough for. Bhutila Karphoche opened up even more about the Asian community and the brunt of ride-sharing apps that were impacting taxi drivers around in major cities.

Some of the issues that New York Taxi Drivers Alliance has stood against are:

This issue is unique to those working class immigrant drivers who have relied on the Taxi industry to provide for their families. The impact of the lack of tourism, enhanced social distancing measures, and the downsizing of foot traffic as businesses shutter across the city, are providing drivers with more trouble in being able to provide for the families. Drivers are also finding it difficult to apply for unemployment benefits because Congress has not authorized any more funding for unemployment.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance sued the State of New York on May 25th, 2020 because the State did not recognize Uber and Lyft drivers as employees and they won their case when Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall ruled in NYCTWA and ruled that New York State:

The judge ordered the Dept. of Labor to pay app-based drivers the full employee rate of UI benefits, instead of the lower rate for self-employed workers that many app drivers were getting under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

This pandemic has brought to light many issues and the fact that the city and state of New York need to work with Taxi drivers to breathe some life back into the industry. The Yellow Cab is iconic on New York’s landscape but also serves as the lifeline for many immigrant New Yorkers. Another problem for drivers would be if Open Streets continues, which some drivers claim would encourage other forms of getting around the city that don’t require a car and would impact their business.

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Navjot Pal Kaur

Navjot Pal Kaur

Kaur Republic has now transitioned to Substack. Please follow us there to become a monthly or yearly subscriber: https://kaurrep.substack.com/

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