Yellow cab drivers in New York are struggling to remain alive because the pandemic rages on
“It’s a ghost town,” notes Tang as he drives through Chinatown.
Wain Chin, who has been driving a yellow cab since 1992, hasn’t worked in New York since the pandemic. He says the chance of winning a few customers doesn’t justify the risk of contracting Covid-19 and potentially passing the disease on to his wife and three children.
Aside from the small number of drivers, many drivers stopped driving for fear of infecting themselves with the virus.
“Drivers were among the earliest people to be exposed to Covid,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). “We lost so many drivers.”
For many of those who stopped driving, federal unemployment controls became the only source of income. When these ran out in the summer, some drivers like Tang had no choice but to take a taxi again. At 36, he believes he is less at risk of contracting the virus, but the fear is there. In December, Tang said a driver who visited the same Chinatown taxi rank as he had died as a result of Covid-19.
The tragedy story of an industry
For Desai and other members of NYTWA, the tragedy in the industry is all too familiar.
Traditionally, taxis in major cities require medallions – official licenses that allow exclusive yellow taxis to take on a hail of streets. New lockets are either sold by the city or, more often, bought through auctions.
In 2018, nine rented drivers died in New York by suicide, which was struck down under the financial pressure of debt on their medallions. Three of them were yellow taxi drivers.
Kenny Chow, a 56-year-old yellow cab driver, was among the victims. His older brother Richard Chow is haunted by the memory of the loss of Kenny.
“I told him to fight bankruptcy,” says Chow. “I didn’t know he would make that decision. Very heartbreaking.”
Immigrants help each other
The Chow brothers were close friends with Chin, bonded through their shared Burmese heritage, and together navigated the complexities of immigrant lives.
In an industry that is largely made up of migrant workers and can be a barrier in language, going through medallion lease documents can be a challenge. Chin often sits with new drivers to make sure they fully understand the documents they are signing and don’t get caught in a debt trap.
A June 2020 report found that immigrants in New York were baring the brunt of the pandemic. Some organizations claimed that 75% of their customers were starving. Chow agrees, saying that he has no choice but to buy cheap, sometimes expired, groceries. The pandemic has made him increasingly dependent on colleagues and the union for emotional support.
Chin and Richard have spoken to each other every day since Kenny’s death and often visit Carl Schurz Park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the place where Kenny took his own life.
You lean against the railing overlooking the East River and take a moment to be silent. Richard prays that other drivers will not suffer the same fate as his brother.
Debt drives the industry
Richard bought his own locket for $ 410,000 in 2006. Fifteen years later, he still owes $ 390,000 for it. “Thousands of drivers feel the same way … fighting.”
Tang acquired his father’s medallion debt of $ 530,000 after his death and is now paying over $ 2,800 per month to his wealth management firm despite picking up few passengers per shift.
When ridesharing such as Uber and Lyft hit the market in the early 2010s, the value of a taxi medallion fell.
Medallions, which were valued at over $ 1 million in 2013, now cost between $ 75,000 and $ 100,000, so drivers owe an average of $ 450,000, according to Desai.
“For thousands of owners and drivers, medallions have been their gateway to the solid life of the middle class,” says Desai, especially for immigrants. For many, this dream will never come true.
In 2013, yellow taxis made nearly half a million trips a day. In 2020 this number dropped to 50-60 thousand. But the yellow taxi industry was already bleeding before the pandemic.
When unregulated rental vehicles flooded the streets, investment-backed platforms like Uber and Lyft undercut tariffs to make up for the loss. As drivers flocked to these cheaper and more accessible taxis, yellow cab drivers stayed in the dust.
Attempts to catch up were largely unsuccessful. A number of yellow taxi driving apps have popped up in recent years, but they haven’t managed to get customers back.
Drivers fight for legislation
In response, NYTWA organized numerous demonstrations across New York in the hope that laws would be passed to support the yellow taxi industry. In September, hundreds of yellow cab drivers stopped traffic on Brooklyn Bridge asking for debt relief. Tang, Chow and Chin have all been active in demonstrations with the NYTWA.
The protests culminated in a motorcade going from New York to Washington DC picking up yellow cab drivers from Maryland and Philadelphia. They parked in front of Capitol Hill and asked Congress to pass the stimulus bill.
“We have people who make politics with our lives,” Tang said.
NYTWA has made a proposal to New York City to withhold loans that are to be restructured to a maximum of USD 125,000 per medallion. Drivers would still be responsible for their loan payments, and in the event of a loan default, the medallion would be repossessed and auctioned.
The plan will cost $ 75 million over 20 years for a city with an annual budget of $ 92 billion.
New York Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York Attorney General Letitia James, along with high-profile politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, voted in favor of the NYTWA proposal.
Desai says yellow taxi drivers were pretty close to winning before the pandemic. As Covid-19 swept the city and nation, attention turned away from the plight of taxi drivers. However, Desai and other drivers are optimistic that they are finally getting the legislative support they need.
“The quarantine created a real sense of community,” Desai emphasizes. She notes that union membership actually grew in 2020.
For Tang, unity is critical to victory. Though decades old, he calls Chin and Chow his brothers. He first made friends with Kenny Chow’s vigil in 2018, and their bond has only strengthened since then.
“I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I really believe that if we bring enough people together, we can make changes,” says Tang.
“We’ll keep fighting for it. We’ll keep making noise.”