For Hartford cabbies, high gas prices and long waits for fares are a nightmare, but rigid state rules make it even worse
By Adam Bulger
July 31, 2008
Amr "Omar" Zeineldin, an Egyptian-born cabbie who works the line at Bradley Airport, is accustomed to waiting. Sitting in the Windsor Locks taxi queue for about two hours on a recent Thursday morning, he never reached the front of the line to pick up an actual fare, instead having to be content with a few cell phone calls reserving trips for later that afternoon and early the next morning. Meanwhile, he started and stopped his engine, burning up $4.25-a-gallon gas, with the cost coming out of his pocket.
As I sat in the back seat of his taxi van, Zeineldin told me the wait was typical. He's an animated speaker, who somehow manages to avoid sweating while wearing a buttoned-down dress shirt in the oven of his van. Given his energy, it's not surprising he tried to use his downtime to brainstorm new ways of making money. A year ago, Zeineldin noticed that his was often the only van working at Bradley. Believing that larger companies are less responsive to customers than smaller operators, he decided to start his own independent taxi service offering van service.
But the day before I met with Zeineldin, his application for permission to start a new taxi business was denied—after a year-long wait punctuated by two five-hour hearings with Department of Transportation officials.
Zeineldin's unsuccessful bid illustrates what many see as flaws in the state's rules governing taxis. Drivers, elected officials and activists say the state's taxi regulations unfairly burden drivers, and prevent them from expressing their grievances, changing jobs or starting their own businesses. While the taxi industry reels from the rising cost of fuel and shrinking ridership from belt-tightening customers, many say drivers, not companies, are the ones feeling the crunch.
Like many drivers in the Hartford area, Zeineldin owns his own car, maintains it and buys gas for it, so he already had one important part of his proposed business in place—the van. "I own it. And from head to toe, I do everything on the vehicle," Zeineldin said as we waited in line at Bradley.
The Enfield resident has driven cabs for different companies since 2001. When he first came to America in the 1990s in search of opportunities his home country wasn't offering, he worked as a cook. But being on his feet all day in the kitchen began to take a toll on his knees, and he turned to the taxi business.
With what is sometimes the only mini-van in the airport queue at the airport, Zeineldin does steady business with direct calls from hotels, companies and families. He said that customers seek him out when they travel with a lot of luggage. "I have a lot of space for customers," Zeineldin said. "And look around: Do you see any other van?"
Legally, Connecticut's cab drivers are considered independent contractors, not full-time employees. But cabbies lack the benefits of both forms of employment, advocates say.
"They operate under rules set by the company, and they have to report to that company," Connecticut State Senator Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said. "It isn't as if they are really independent contractors who run their own businesses. They have all the obligations of employees without any of the benefits of being employees. They don't have access to worker's compensation and other rights employees have."
Cab drivers pay a weekly fee to the taxi companies, called a lease. For most taxi drivers in the state, the lease includes the cost of renting a car from the company, and the cost can be as high as $900 a week. The taxi business is unpredictable, and one driver complained to me about taking home as little as $100 a week after paying for the lease and gas.
Hartford-area drivers tend to own their cars more often than drivers in other parts of the state, but still have to pay a (usually less expensive) lease, which provides them with auto insurance and permission to legally operate a cab in the state.
The driver is always responsible for the lease regardless of how much he or she earns. Drivers also pay for gas, which is a growing burden with rising gasoline costs.
"It's gotten harder. I'm looking for a part-time job now," said Mubarak Mustafa, a Sudanese native and four-year veteran cabbie. He had few complaints about the customers in his Hartford and New Britain coverage areas, but said that the cab fares are outpaced by the cost of operating a cab. "It's not matching the price of gas," he said.
Antoine Scott, the founder of the New Haven-based taxi drivers advocacy group the Coalition of Independent Contractors, agrees that state rules unfairly burden drivers.
"Some guys are paying $50 or $60 a day for gas. In some cases the leases are $130 per day. That is $180 a day before you can receive even $1 profit," Scott said.
Marco Henry, president of the largest Hartford-area taxi company, Bloomfield-based Yellow Cab, said the lease rates are fair. "Proportionally, the lease today is less than it was 10 years ago if you take into consideration vehicle maintenance and the cost of insurance," Henry said. "The profit margin shrinks every year."
The DOT sets the rates for fares, but Scott complains the agency doesn't regulate lease rates or set rules about cab-driver workers' rights. "Being an independent contractor means you have no legal protection," Scott said. "If you and your cab company have a problem, you can't go to the labor board, and you can't go to the DOT. It's just you against them."
The solution, it would seem, would be to throw off the yoke of the cab company and do what enterprising Americans have been encouraged to do since the days of Horatio Alger—strike out on their own. Scott and others say the state's regulations make that impossible. To start under a new cab company, applicants have to appear before a board of two or three DOT officials at a public hearing. At that hearing, applicants have to prove they know the state's taxi laws, don't have a criminal record and make their case for a new taxi service. Complicating the last requirement is the presence of representatives from existing taxi companies, who are allowed to testify against the need for new competition.
"State law prevents you from starting your own company, even if you work hard enough and have enough cash," Scott said. "You have to go before this board. And that board is partly made up of officials from the cab companies. So if you go to the board and they say 'No, we don't need more cabs here,' more likely than not, you're out of luck."
Rising fuel costs have raised the cost of air fares, and Bradley Airport recently announced that it would no longer offer direct Amsterdam flights. Despite this, Zeineldin says the airport taxi cab business has held steady. But in the morning I spent with him in the queue, business and cabs moved with glacier-like slowness.
According to rules set by the DOT, only three cabs at a time can wait for passengers outside the terminal. But when planes are landing, about 30 cabs are on duty. They're kept out of sight of the terminal in a fenced-in lot, with the cars waiting in a spiraling queue.
Incoming flights arrive in clusters, with long stretches of time between arrivals. To conserve gas, the drivers turn off their cars, only moving when a gap of three or four car-lengths appears.
While they wait, many drivers sit in their cars, enduring the baking sun and soupy humidity. Some kill time by washing their cabs or idly chatting with their peers —Zeineldin's application was a hot topic, with a number of drivers asking him what the hearings were like. Some drivers lounge outside their cars, passing water bottles they store in trunk-based ice coolers. Others play cards in an open-air cabin by the lot.
Making money remains a challenge for them. The DOT sets flat rates for cab rides from Bradley to area towns. Longer trips cost more money, obviously: a trip to the northern parts of Windsor is $17; a ride to Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun costs more than $100. Cabbies luck out sometimes, though. One cabbie showed me a $280 airline voucher payment for a recent fare from a client who rode from Bradley to Albany, N.Y. after getting bumped from a flight.
Cabbies can't legally refuse fares, so if the client wants a short ride to a town bordering Windsor Locks, the taxi driver is required to take them there for a low fee, then get back in line for another fare, which can take hours.
According to state law, cabbies can only work 12 hours a day. But because of the long waiting jags and the uncertain pay-offs, some cabbies disregard the rule. While I visited the lot, Somalia-born cabbie Abdidani Ossman pointed across the yard to a driver.
"That driver got here at 8 a.m. this morning," Ossman said. "If you came back tonight at midnight, he would still be here. I guarantee it."
Zeineldin leases his license from Yellow Cab. To start his own independent service, he would have to get his own DOT license. After retaining an attorney, saving $30,000 and filling out the application, Zeineldin applied for his license last summer. But after two hearings and a year of deliberation, his request was denied. Applicants for new licenses need to meet a "necessity and convenience" requirement, which means they need to prove the public needs a new company.
Zeineldin brought six of his customers to testify about the need for his proposed business and was frustrated that their testimony didn't convince the board commissioners.
"I don't know what to do to prove necessity and convenience," Zeineldin said. "What else do they want? My customers all said they needed my services. What do they want them to do? Cry?"
The DOT shot down the application because another company already offers van service: Zeineldin's own Yellow Cab. In fact, Zeineldin's boss, Yellow Cab President Marco Henry, testified against the need for the proposed taxi van company at the hearing.
"Our company has 12 vans, and other companies have vans," Henry said. "Some companies have town cars, which carry more luggage than the van."
Robert McNamara is a staff attorney for national non-profit advocacy group Institute for Justice, which lobbies for Connecticut cab driver rights. He doesn't believe existing cab companies should speak at hearings about new businesses.
"Every new business wants to take work away from an existing company," McNamara said. "That's what it means to start a new business. They want to provide better service, or market themselves differently, or they want to pick up customers in areas where the company isn't doing a good job."
The system, McNamara contends, supports monopoly-like practices. McNamara said the state protects existing businesses in a way that would be unthinkable for other industries. "It's the exact equivalent of making Burger King and McDonald's fight over whether a city needs new fast food restaurants," McNamara said.
The state's taxi critics allege that by protecting existing companies from new competition, the system makes it difficult for drivers to fight mistreatment. "If you and your cab company get into a fight or any beef ... you have nobody to protect you," Scott said. "You really can't work for someone else."
Yellow Cab's Henry disputes the idea that the state makes it difficult to open new companies. New cab companies open every year, Henry said, and the proposals rejected by the DOT, such as Zeineldin's, are denied because of their inherent flaws, not because of an unfair system.
"Omar didn't do his homework properly," Henry said. "If you do the work, the DOT will issue your permit."
In the last two months, state officials have considered making changes to the taxi industry. On June 25 and 26, the DOT held two public hearings concerning the rates cabs charge. The first concerned raising the flat rates charged at Bradley; the second raising statewide taxi fares. Both were presided over by DOT adjudicators and attended by taxi company owners. The need for a rate increase—the first in over a year—was universally agreed upon, but the procedures for raising them were vigorously debated.
"The drivers are screaming. They're crying," said Mike Wolkovitz, who attended the second meeting on behalf of East Haven's Checker Cab Company. "Everybody in the country is getting screwed because of gas. The drivers need to make a living. If they're paying $60 a day for gas, it's got to come from the customer."
Fares are set two ways: the initial fee charged when customers enter the cab, called the drop, and the rate charged for distance of the trip. While the owners agreed on the need for a rate increase, the way the rate would be increased was hotly debated. Some owners believed the drop, currently set at $3.25 statewide, should be raised. Others fear customers will be wary if the base cost of cab use is raised, and worry that drivers who take passengers on mostly short trips will be unfairly burdened—customers could be scared off from taking trips after seeing a larger initial fee.
Arguably, though, most of the people present at the DOT meetings are at least one degree removed from an intimate relationship with meter rates. The lease fees drivers pay to the company remain the same no matter what the drivers charge the customers. At a June 19 public hearing in Hartford, cabbies, drivers and their allies addressed the legislature's Program Review and Investigation Committee about the need for reform of the state's taxi rules. The committee, led by Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, was spurred on to look into DOT practices by a December 2007 New Haven Advocate investigative article about Bridgeport and New Haven taxi service, and on the recommendation of attorney Michael Jefferson of the African-American Affairs Commission. Looney says he's concerned about the employment status of drivers and the difficulty of opening new cab businesses, and he says he's looking into claims that the DOT has grown increasingly lax about regulations.
"From what I'm hearing, at least preliminarily, there is a problem with the regulatory climate under the DOT," Looney said. "There have been anecdotal reports of a DOT regulator who was very responsive and aware of issues in the taxi program. But he retired a couple of years ago, in 2002 or 2003. Since that time, the regulatory climate at the DOT hasn't been all that effective. The people involved haven't seemed all that knowledgeable or interested in the taxi industry. That seems to be a theme I've heard from different drivers in the state."
The committee is working on recommendations based on the hearing, with proposals due before the next legislative session in January.
"I think it's an excellent beginning," McNamara said. They have a good sense of what's wrong with the regulations of taxis, and I'm hopeful they're going to do the right thing."
Unfortunately, no matter what the legislature does, it might be too late for some drivers. Zeineldin is debating an appeal to his case, and spending a lot of time worrying.
As his van crawled to a place near the front of the Bradley taxi queue, he told me he feared that his unsuccessful attempt at starting a new business put his current job in jeopardy. And if Yellow Cab fires him or doesn't renew his lease (which Henry denied the company would do), he's not sure what the future holds.