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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 14, 2009, 11:52 pm

A Taxing Profession: Cabbies Face Low Pay, Long Hours, High Risk

BY Kari Lydersen

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On July 24 the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 an hour. But that won’t help Chicago cab drivers, who make an average of $4 an hour working 24 to 25 days a month for 12 to 13 hours a day, according to a study released this spring by the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations and commissioned by the American Friends Service Committee-United Taxidrivers Community Council (AFSC-UTCC).

The study surveyed 920 drivers, or about 8 percent of Chicago’s 10,500-cab force, and found that weekly lease drivers make an average $4.81 an hour, shift lease drivers just $4.07 an hour, after paying their leases, fuel costs, airport taxes, cab upkeep and other expenses. That adds up to about $13,000 a year. Drivers who own their own medallions and have paid off the steep loans to get one do only a bit better, at $6.41 an hour.

Meanwhile a new study by the University of Illinois commissioned by the AFSC-UTCC addressed the serious risk of violence that cab drivers face on a daily basis.

Many people know cab driving is a dangerous job, but most probably assume the main risk is violent robbery. The study and drivers affiliated with the UTCC assert that violent attacks related to racism, inebriation or random aggression, not involving robbery, are a serious and under-addressed risk.

Take Stanley Shen, a Chinese American driver beaten severely after he was rear-ended last year. Or Walid Ziada, a Palestinian driver allegedly beaten by two men and a woman (ironically leaving an Obama victory party) so badly that he suffered a facial hematoma and was at risk of losing his eye.

Or the 2005 murder of driver Haroon Paryani by Michael Jackson, a high-ranking city health official high on drugs who ran Paryani, 61, over with his own cab. Despite the brutal nature of the murder, Jackson’s supporters launched a campaign to defame Paryani and register complaints from past riders. The incident sparked the AFSC, with support from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago to launch the Taxi Worker Organizing Project, which became the UTCC.

Contrary to stereotypes of cabbies being attacked in “bad” neighborhoods, the study shows the majority of attacks happen on Chicago’s northeast side, the wealthier, whiter portion of the city. (Cabs are also more prevalent in this area).

As in many major cities, Chicago cab drivers face substantial barriers to getting justice and financial compensation when they are victims of crime or customer misconduct. In Chicago, they live in fear of complaints, whether valid or not, filed with the city’s consumer services division, that can easily lead to them losing their ability to work as drivers.

The AFSC-UTCC has long been pressing the city to mandate cabs bear a sticker notifying riders of a 2008 law making it a class 3 felony to assault a working cab driver. So far the consumer services division has resisted, saying such stickers would “clutter” cabs, according to the UTCC.

Drivers and organizing staff say people think they can attack or mistreat drivers and get away with it. Racism and xenophobia, or just the idea that immigrants and people of color have less political capital, play into this dynamic. About 60 percent of Chicago cab drivers are Muslim, and especially after the Sept. 11 attacks cab drivers anecdotally reported being verbally abused or discriminated against based on their race and religion. The top five countries of origin among surveyed drivers were Nigeria, Pakistan, U.S., Somalia and Ghana.

Cab drivers say multiple issues are tied together that make their jobs dangerous, grueling and low-paying. Along with a fare increase and other specific remedies they are requesting from city officials and cab companies, they say an increase in respect, good behavior and empathy from customers would go a long way.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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