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Bailout Brewing For Underwater Medallion Cabbies

February 21, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Two City Councilmembers are preparing legislation intended to bail out debt-laden yellow-cab owner drivers and relieve taxi and livery drivers slapped with heavy fines by the city Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (tie) stands with NYC cabbies and livery car drivers.

Council Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) said Feb. 20 that he plans to introduce a bill “to establish a bailout program for individual medallion owners,” as well as calling for a moratorium on “credit-shattering fines issued to taxi and livery drivers by the Taxi and Limousine Commission” and asking the state to halt the $2.50 to $2.75 congestion surcharge on fares in the southern half of Manhattan until it enacts “a comprehensive congestion pricing plan.”

“We are not going to rest until we reach a moratorium,” Rodriguez, speaking in Spanish, told about 75 drivers and reporters gathered in a marble-floored ballroom upstairs from a livery-cab garage on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. “It is my commitment to rescue the industry and the drivers.” Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) also spoke.

If the city and state could afford to offer $3 billion to Amazon, Rodriguez added, it can help the owner-drivers who bought taxi medallions after “the city promised them that they would have the exclusive right to pick up and drop off.” 

The value of those medallions has dropped so precipitously since app-based cabs arrived in the city that many of the 6,000 yellow-cab owner-drivers owe hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their medallions are now worth. Three of the eight financially distressed drivers who have committed suicide since November 2017 were owner-drivers in that situation.

Rodriguez said he has already proposed language for a bailout bill, but it is still being drafted. The first step, he told LaborPress, would be creating a task force to study how best to help owner-drivers and what criteria to use to select the ones who need aid. That panel has already been authorized by earlier legislation, he said.

Another issue is a moratorium on fines “not necessarily related to safety,” Rodriguez said. Diaz called those fines “abusive” and said many were the result of “entrapment” by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. 

Diaz, whose committee on for-hire vehicles was eliminated after he said the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community,” told the drivers that action punished them more than it did him.  

More than 1,200 drivers complained about excessive TLC fines to that committee while it was in existence, Diaz staffer Jeanette Mejia, who was one of the city’s few women cabbies, told LaborPress. 

“We know the rules of the city, but they abuse the rules,” says Jeremy Rosario, a father of three who drives for Uber and a black-car base. “We just work.”

The TLC, he says, fines drivers for things like wearing headphones, having tinted windows, or having their license in the wrong place, and the penalties can be as high as $1,000 to $2,000. That’s a major blow for drivers who are already paying $330 a week for the car plus gas, insurance, and Internet access, he adds.

Among the stiffest fines levied, says Mejia, are those for livery drivers who pick up people who hail them on the street—illegal except for yellow and green cabs, but long a way of life in cab-scarce parts of the city. “If they don’t call the base, we need to make the money,” says Sonelky de la Cruz, who has been driving in the Bronx for four years, first as a livery driver, now for Uber and a black-car base.

The TLC, drivers say, often sends out agents who hail non-medallion cabs and issue summonses to drivers who pick them up. The fines start at $500 to $1,500, says Mejia, but are usually plea-bargained down to $300 for a first offense, $800 for a second offense, and $2,500 for a third offense, which can also get your license revoked.

De la Cruz says he’d rather lose money by cutting his shifts short than risk a hefty fine. “If you hear there are TLCs on Grand Concourse, you don’t go there,” he says. “When I know they are here, I don’t work.”

February 21, 2019

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