Bright and early this morning, cab drivers gathered in Lower Manhattan to embark on a multi-state caravan to Washington, D.C., where drivers rallied outside the U.S. Capitol for an extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program – a federal unemployment benefits program for self-employed workers and independent contractors. That program, which provides assistance to more than 1.5 million people in the tri-state area, is set to expire at the end of this month. As the caravan made its way to the nation’s capital, it also picked up cabbies in Philadelphia and Maryland, creating a long, yellow motorcade down the New Jersey Turnpike.
To participate in the caravan, drivers sacrificed a valuable day of picking up fares in the city – a difficult task in these days of plummeting fare opportunities. As of last month, revenue for the taxi industry in New York City was down 81% year-over-year. Struggling to pay rent, insurance and loan payments – and, in some cases, even for meals – drivers are being forced to compete for hard-to-find fares just to make a fraction of what they brought in pre-pandemic.
They may be giving up a day of work, but for Dorothy Leconte, making the trip to D.C. to rally for federal unemployment assistance is worth it. “I get frustrated with this country,” Leconte, a yellow cab driver for over three decades, said. “The trillionaires, the billionaires, the millionaires – they look at little people (like they’re) nothing. They say, ‘You are from a Third World country, you don’t deserve no more than $60 a day to survive.’” Sixty dollars a day in fares has become the norm for some drivers. Before the pandemic – and before increased competition from ride-hail apps like Uber – Leconte said drivers could easily make $60 an hour.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the federal program set to expire in less than three weeks, is meant to cover freelancers, gig workers and other types of self-employed people who aren’t covered by traditional unemployment insurance. Leconte said she made around $220 a week after taxes under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. And while an extra federal unemployment assistance benefit providing another $600 a week helped her stay home from work through most of the spring and summer, that benefit expired at the end of July. Since then, she’s had to go back to driving.
Leconte has been back at work since August and has yet to make anywhere near enough money to pay her bills. “I have to come to work and risk all of the problems,” she said of the risk of contracting COVID-19 while driving. Leconte’s ex-husband, who was also a cab driver, died from COVID-19 in late March, she said. To supplement her reduced income, Leconte has also taken work driving for Amazon Flex and delivering groceries – but that work is low-paying, demanding and time-consuming, she said.
That’s why Leconte and other drivers – along with groups that represent them such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance – are calling for a “people’s stimulus” from the federal government that would include extending Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, reinstating the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, and approving another round of stimulus checks, along with other measures.
Leconte also said drivers need debt forgiveness to address the crippling medallion loan payments that taxi medallion owners such as herself are still burdened by. Drivers have organized other caravans during the pandemic – creating similarly striking “seas of yellow” that shut down the Brooklyn Bridge – to rally for medallion debt relief, a separate, though not unrelated crisis facing the industry.
Congress continues to hammer out the details of a coronavirus relief bill and, as of today, the proposal appears to include an extra 16 weeks in all pandemic unemployment insurance programs, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That may provide some relief for cab drivers and other self-employed workers, but it’s not close to what workers are asking for to help them survive the crisis. “I feel disappointed with the government,” Leconte said. “The treatment the government is giving poor people is very bad.”