New York’s yellow cab drivers struggle to stay alive as pandemic rages on

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Wain Chin, who has been driving a yellow cab since 1992, has not worked since the pandemic hit New York. He says the possibility of having a few clients does not justify the risk of catching Covid-19 and potentially transmitting the disease to his wife and three children.

In addition to the low attendance rate, many drivers have stopped driving altogether for fear of catching the virus themselves.

“Drivers were among the first people to be exposed to Covid,” says Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). “We have lost so many pilots. ”

For many of those who have stopped driving, federal unemployment checks have become the only source of income. When those ran out over the summer, some drivers, like Tang, had no choice but to get behind the wheel of a cab. At 36, he thinks he is less at risk of catching the virus, but the anxiety is there. In December, Tang says a driver who frequented the same Chinatown taxi rank as him died of complications from Covid-19.

The tragic story of an industry

For Desai and other NYTWA members, the tragedy in the industry is all too familiar.

Traditionally, taxis in large cities require medallions – official licenses that allow the exclusivity of yellow taxis to pick up hail from the streets. The new medallions are either sold by the city or, more commonly, bought at auction.

In 2018, nine for-hire drivers in New York City committed suicide, crushed under the financial pressure of debts owed on their medallions. Three of them were drivers-owners of yellow taxis.

Richard Chow

Kenny Chow, a 56-year-old yellow cab owner-driver, was among the victims. His older brother, Richard Chow, is tormented by the memory of the loss of Kenny.

“I told him to fight bankruptcy,” Chow says. “I didn’t know he would make this decision. Very heartbreaking. ”

Immigrants help each other

The Chow brothers were close friends of Chin, tapping into their common Burmese heritage and navigating the intricacies of immigrant life together.

In an industry largely made up of immigrant workers, where language can be a barrier, going through Medallion rental documents can be a challenge. Chin often sits down with new drivers to make sure they fully understand the documents they are signing and don’t fall into the debt trap.

Richard Chow, left, and Wain Chin

A report released in June 2020 found that immigrants to New York City bore the brunt of the pandemic, with some organizations claiming 75% of their customers were hungry. Chow agrees, saying he has no choice but to buy cheap, sometimes outdated food. During the pandemic, he increasingly relied on his colleagues and the union for his emotional support.

Since Kenny’s passing, Chin and Richard have spoken to each other every day and often visit Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the site where Kenny committed suicide.

They lean on the railing overlooking the East River and take a moment’s silence. Richard prays that other drivers do not suffer the same fate as his brother.

Debt drives industry

Richard bought his own medallion in 2006 for $ 410,000. Fifteen years later, he still owes her $ 390,000. “Thousands of drivers feel the same… in trouble. ”

Tang acquired his father’s $ 530,000 locket debt after his death and now pays his asset management company more than $ 2,800 per month, although he can only take a few passengers per shift.

When ridesharing platforms like Uber and Lyft entered the market in the early 2010s, the value of a taxi medallion plummeted.

An asset once valued at over $ 1 million in 2013, lockets now sell for between $ 75,000 and $ 100,000, leaving drivers short of $ 450,000 in debt on average, according to Desai.

A taxi medallion.

“For thousands of owner-drivers, medallions have been their entry point into regular middle-class life,” Desai says, especially for immigrants. For many, this dream will never come true.

In 2013, yellow taxis made almost half a million trips per day. In 2020, this number fell to 50 – 60 thousand. But the yellow cab industry was already hemorrhaging trips before the pandemic.

As unregulated rental vehicles flooded the streets, investment-backed platforms such as Uber and Lyft slashed rates, able to absorb the loss. As passengers flocked to these cheaper, more accessible taxis, the yellow cab drivers were left in the dust.

Catch-up attempts were largely unsuccessful. A number of yellow taxi apps have sprung up in recent years, but have not been able to pick up customers.

Drivers fight for legislation

In response, the NYTWA has organized numerous protests across New York City in hopes that legislation supporting the yellow cab industry will be passed. In September, hundreds of yellow cab drivers halted traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, asking for debt cancellation. Tang, Chow, and Chin have all participated in protests with the NYTWA.

The protests culminated in a motorcade that traveled from New York to Washington, DC, picking up yellow cab drivers from Maryland and Philadelphia. They pulled up in front of Capitol Hill, demanding that Congress pass the stimulus bill.

“We have people who play politics with our lives,” Tang says.

NYTWA presented a proposal in New York asking it to support loans that would be restructured to a maximum of $ 125,000 per medallion. The drivers would still be responsible for their loan payments and in the event of default, the medallion would be taken back and auctioned.

The plan will cost $ 75 million over 20 years for a city with an annual budget of $ 92 billion.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York Attorney General Letitia James have both expressed support for the NYTWA proposal, as have high-level politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Desai says the yellow cab drivers before the pandemic were pretty close to victory. As Covid-19 swept the city and the country, attention shifted from the plight of taxi drivers. However, Desai and other drivers are optimistic that they will finally get the legislative backing they need.

“Through quarantine, we have built a real sense of community,” Desai insists. She notes that union membership actually increased in 2020.

Augustine Tang

For Tang, unity is essential to victory. Although he is decades old, he refers to Chin and Chow as his brothers. He first befriended them during Kenny Chow’s wake in 2018 and since then their bond has only grown stronger.

“I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I really think we can make changes when we get enough people together,” Tang says.

“We will continue to fight for this. We will continue to make noise. ”

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