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Study finds unfair, unsafe working conditions for San Diego taxi drivers

A group of graduate students at San Diego State University led by Professor Jill Esbenshade teamed with the labor-friendly local think tank Center on Policy Initiatives to produce Driven to Despair: A Survey of San Diego Taxi Drivers, which was released at a press conference on May 23.

A group of students surveyed 331 different drivers who were randomly approached at 25 different locations throughout the city. Their results paint an ugly picture.

Eighty-two percent of drivers, they found, reported working 10 hours a day or more, 54 percent said an average workday lasted at least 12 hours. The median work week for drivers lasted 71 hours. Being on the road that long takes its toll on drivers, Esbenshade says.

“This causes accidents such as [outside] the Stingaree a couple years ago where a taxi driver nodded off and plowed into a crowd in front of the nightclub,” Esbenshade told reporters. “But also important, is that in those 71 hours, taxi drivers are barely making what a minimum wage worker makes in 40 hours.”

The drivers, 94 percent of whom are recent immigrants to the United States, are not working this hard to get ahead, but simply in an attempt to stay afloat. The median wage earned by drivers, the study found, was $4.45 per hour, including tips.

Why the low wages and long hours? 90 percent of drivers do not own their cabs, but instead lease them from the actual owner, who holds the cab permit issued by the city. While the city officially values these permits at $3,000, a robust black market exists where the permits are sold for as much as $160,000 when accompanied with the coveted permission of being able to retrieve passengers from Lindbergh Field.

Drivers then rent their cabs from the owners at an inflated cost due to the inflated permit price. Cab owners are expected to maintain the vehicles for their drivers, but many drivers reported paying for maintenance and/or accident damage to vehicles out of their own pockets.

After considering fuel costs, a driver’s take on each fare stands at about 30 percent, the study concludes.

“While conducting a survey, one of the researchers on the project was shown a dashboard of a taxi that was covered in sticky notes,” said Karina Russ, an SDSU graduate student who worked on the project. “The driver removed the notes for our researcher, showing a dash full of warning signals that had been illuminated, including the check engine light. The driver reported that his owner was refusing to repair the vehicle and he had to cover the lights because ‘it makes customers nervous.’”

Another driver was reportedly fired refusing to let his owner strip the tires from his cab to place on another vehicle that was due for a MTS safety inspection.

Abebe Antalio, a former driver, said he was fired in retaliation for attempting to organize drivers under the United Taxi Workers, and said the leases between driver and owner were “like a slavery agreement that is imposed upon us.”

Peter Brownell, the Center’s research director who partnered with the SDSU team, showed off a copy of the 44-page Metropolitan Transit System Ordinance 11, which sets forth rules for the local taxi system.

“It describes in great detail what taxi owners and drivers must do down to, for example, the maximum height of shorts the drivers can wear above their kneecaps,” said Brownell. “But one thing that’s notably missing in the 44 pages is any regulation of the relationship between taxi cab owners and the drivers who lease the cabs.”

The drivers frequently complain that they’re not provided copies of their leases or receipts for lease payments, documents that would be necessary to file proper taxes if indeed they were independent contractors and private business owners, as the owners claim.

Brownell points to other cities such as Chicago and New York, which have established “Driver’s Bills of Rights,” ensuring written lease agreements, receipts for lease payments, and maximum lease rates “to ensure that drivers get an equitable share of the fares and tips that they collect.” These agreements also have anti-retaliation clauses, preventing owners from firing drivers for requesting that regulations be followed or vehicles properly maintained.

The city decided to renew the existing agreement for taxi management with MTS for one more year when it expires in June, instead of the usual five-year term. By 2014, the city hopes to have a plan in place to take over management of the taxi program itself, with the intention of improving safety and working conditions for drivers.

The Reader’s Joe Deegan recently published another article on San Diego’s taxi issues, which provides greater detail on some of the issues discussed here.

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A group of graduate students at San Diego State University led by Professor Jill Esbenshade teamed with the labor-friendly local think tank Center on Policy Initiatives to produce Driven to Despair: A Survey of San Diego Taxi Drivers, which was released at a press conference on May 23.

A group of students surveyed 331 different drivers who were randomly approached at 25 different locations throughout the city. Their results paint an ugly picture.

Eighty-two percent of drivers, they found, reported working 10 hours a day or more, 54 percent said an average workday lasted at least 12 hours. The median work week for drivers lasted 71 hours. Being on the road that long takes its toll on drivers, Esbenshade says.

“This causes accidents such as [outside] the Stingaree a couple years ago where a taxi driver nodded off and plowed into a crowd in front of the nightclub,” Esbenshade told reporters. “But also important, is that in those 71 hours, taxi drivers are barely making what a minimum wage worker makes in 40 hours.”

The drivers, 94 percent of whom are recent immigrants to the United States, are not working this hard to get ahead, but simply in an attempt to stay afloat. The median wage earned by drivers, the study found, was $4.45 per hour, including tips.

Why the low wages and long hours? 90 percent of drivers do not own their cabs, but instead lease them from the actual owner, who holds the cab permit issued by the city. While the city officially values these permits at $3,000, a robust black market exists where the permits are sold for as much as $160,000 when accompanied with the coveted permission of being able to retrieve passengers from Lindbergh Field.

Drivers then rent their cabs from the owners at an inflated cost due to the inflated permit price. Cab owners are expected to maintain the vehicles for their drivers, but many drivers reported paying for maintenance and/or accident damage to vehicles out of their own pockets.

After considering fuel costs, a driver’s take on each fare stands at about 30 percent, the study concludes.

“While conducting a survey, one of the researchers on the project was shown a dashboard of a taxi that was covered in sticky notes,” said Karina Russ, an SDSU graduate student who worked on the project. “The driver removed the notes for our researcher, showing a dash full of warning signals that had been illuminated, including the check engine light. The driver reported that his owner was refusing to repair the vehicle and he had to cover the lights because ‘it makes customers nervous.’”

Another driver was reportedly fired refusing to let his owner strip the tires from his cab to place on another vehicle that was due for a MTS safety inspection.

Abebe Antalio, a former driver, said he was fired in retaliation for attempting to organize drivers under the United Taxi Workers, and said the leases between driver and owner were “like a slavery agreement that is imposed upon us.”

Peter Brownell, the Center’s research director who partnered with the SDSU team, showed off a copy of the 44-page Metropolitan Transit System Ordinance 11, which sets forth rules for the local taxi system.

“It describes in great detail what taxi owners and drivers must do down to, for example, the maximum height of shorts the drivers can wear above their kneecaps,” said Brownell. “But one thing that’s notably missing in the 44 pages is any regulation of the relationship between taxi cab owners and the drivers who lease the cabs.”

The drivers frequently complain that they’re not provided copies of their leases or receipts for lease payments, documents that would be necessary to file proper taxes if indeed they were independent contractors and private business owners, as the owners claim.

Brownell points to other cities such as Chicago and New York, which have established “Driver’s Bills of Rights,” ensuring written lease agreements, receipts for lease payments, and maximum lease rates “to ensure that drivers get an equitable share of the fares and tips that they collect.” These agreements also have anti-retaliation clauses, preventing owners from firing drivers for requesting that regulations be followed or vehicles properly maintained.

The city decided to renew the existing agreement for taxi management with MTS for one more year when it expires in June, instead of the usual five-year term. By 2014, the city hopes to have a plan in place to take over management of the taxi program itself, with the intention of improving safety and working conditions for drivers.

The Reader’s Joe Deegan recently published another article on San Diego’s taxi issues, which provides greater detail on some of the issues discussed here.

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