Taxicab drivers — who are essential to the city’s economy, tourism and transportation — make far less than the minimum wage, according to a group of cabdrivers who took their message to City Hall on Wednesday and called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to raise cab fares.
“The city sets all of these regulations as if they are our employer, but when it comes to what an employer would provide, they get away without having to provide any of those things, like minimum wage, like benefits, like health insurance, because they call us independent contractors,” said Melissa Callahan, leader of the advocacy group Cab Drivers for Justice. “They’re skirting a lot of their responsibilities.”
Callahan and roughly half a dozen other cab drivers held a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, to put the spotlight on their long hours and low wages, and demand the city attempt to boost drivers' profits by increasing taxi fares for the first time since 2005.
Because the city of Chicago regulates the taxicab industry, it is therefore an employer and should thus ensure that some 15,000 drivers earn at least $7.25 per hour, which is the federal minimum wage, according to Callahan.
“The mayor and members of the city council that have allowed this situation to exist should be ashamed ... Even if we are independent contractors, the city should still pay us $7.25 per hour. Nothing else is reasonable,” Callahan said.
Under some of the city’s regulations, drivers are required to have working credit card machines, must keep the vehicle clean, and cannot refuse a fare or decline a passenger if the cab is empty.
"We are the people who greet tourists, business people and convention goers and the people who come and spend and create the tax revenue that pays for what goes on in the city," Callahan said. "On behalf of taxi drivers in Chicago, I call upon the mayor to ensure that we taxi drivers make at least the minimum wage."
Click through for more from Callahan and Wednesday’s press conference.
Callahan’s arguments echoed those of a federal lawsuit she filed against the city in January 2012. A motion for the suit to be considered a class-action lawsuit was filed in February 2013.
“By setting lease rates unreasonably high and meter rates unreasonably low, the city of Chicago has deprived the cab drivers of a reasonable return on their investment in operating the cabs under their leases,” the lawsuit reads.
Callahan, who's been driving a cab for more than six years, called the lawsuit “unprecedented.”
In its motion to dismiss, the city claims it is not responsible for taxi drivers’ wages because it is not their employer and, among other things, receives no benefit from taxi services.
The city also filed a motion for summary judgment in January, asking for a ruling in its favor before the suit goes to trial. Callahan and her lawyers have until April 25 to respond.
“Each year, when we are denied fare increases, I have to work harder and harder and harder,” said Thaddeus Budzynski, a cab driver in Chicago for 26 years. “There are times when I’m not making enough … Sometimes I even have to give up going to Sunday mass just to make time to work so that I can break even.”
The drivers pointed to two studies illustrating that, after the vehicle lease expense and gasoline costs are deducted, most drivers make an hourly wage of between $4 and $6, including tips.
According to a 2008 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the average taxicab driver worked six days a week, the average shift was more than 13 hours, and the average drivers’ hourly wage was $4.38. Also, a 2011 study from a city consultant revealed the average cab driver’s annual income ranged between roughly $10,000 and $24,000.
But both of those studies were released before the city’s 2012 taxicab industry reforms, which included a hike to lease rates.
“I would suspect that the numbers are significantly lower,” Callahan said.
To offset some of the drivers’ costs, a $1 fuel surcharge was made permanent during those reforms and is now included in the cost of a cab ride. But Callahan called the surcharge a “bogus manipulation that makes no difference for the driver.”
Callahan also said the increasing popularity of ride-sharing, a form of carpooling that does not currently adhere to taxi regulations, is infringing on cab drivers’ profits. The taxicab drivers also called on the city to regulate ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft.
A representative from the mayor's office could not be immediately reached for comment.
“[With] the way he is treating working people here in Chicago, he’s only going to be a one-term mayor,” Budzynski said of Emanuel. “I think it’s time we get treated a little better … The city is going to have to start making some changes so cab drivers can have a better life.”