For-Hire Vehicle Committee Public Comment

On behalf of the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), a Machinists Union affiliate that represents the 60,000 New York City based For-Hire Vehicle (FHV) drivers and their families, I am writing with regard to the first For-Hire Vehicle Committee meeting on Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) Enforcement practices.

Our members are the so-called “independent contractors” that work for app-based companies such as Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Via among others. Our drivers are immigrants representing 190 countries fighting for the American dream, they are young entrepreneurs, parents, and seniors – they are the working poor.

The backbone of every issue in this industry is that For-Hire Vehicle workers are struggling more today than at any point in the history of the industry. Workers are killing themselves on your stoop to try to get that point across.

As the recent tragic deaths of Doug Schifter and Danilo Corporan Castillo clearly demonstrate, the growing economic hardship of FHV drivers is something that cannot be ignored and must be addressed whenever discussing this industry. A widely held misconception is that app-based drivers do well, but this can’t be further from the truth. While it is true that companies like Uber, Lyft and their employees do very well, app-based drivers can barely make ends meet and support their families. After years of pay cuts and systemic wage theft, most full-time drivers earn less than minimum wage after expenses. Drivers are desperately suffocating under the weight of mounting expenses. The median hourly wage for an app-based driver is about $12 per hour – less than the NYS minimum wage. While enforcement is a huge and emotionally tolling expense on workers in this industry, it’s essential that we raise the floor.

After the video of a TLC officer choking a driver was released (http://idg.ms/TLCEnforcementChoke) we disseminated a survey in an effort to encourage our members to report any similar acts of violence from officers to us, so we could in turn report those to the Commission on Human Rights. However, when responding to the question “Have you ever experienced an abuse of power by TLC police or the NYPD? What was your experience?” the vast majority of the 177 responses were about the economic hardship TLC enforcement imposed. Here are a few of the responses:

“I have had experience with TLC Police. I check my vehicle everyday before I start driving. Apparently one (only one of the bulbs in my braked light went out, I was given two summonses (one for $50.00, and one for $250) I work two days to make that kind of money and for one bulb had two hefty tickets. I went down two TLC and even though I explained my circumstance I was sent a decision in the mail it read “I did not make representation and I did not see a judge” (not true) and I paid the fine because I could not lose another day’s pay to attend court.” – Manjit

“I have experienced an abuse of power by the TLC police. On June 28, 2017, I was pulled over by the TLC police while I had a passenger in the vehicle. They took my drivers license and after 15 minutes they came back to me and told me to come out of the car. I asked why and they insisted that I step out of the vehicle. They handcuffed me with the passenger still in my car. When she asked what’s going on, she was told to call another Uber. I was taken to the precinct, fingerprinted and arrested for a suspended license. I was then transported to Manhattan Central Booking and while there I saw a medical professional that checked my sugar level. I am a diabetic; the professional instructed the police that I must go to the hospital because my glucose level was extremely high. I was taken to Presbyterian Hospital for observation. The doctor told them that I was ok and was taken back to central booking. I spent the night in jail. At approximately 4pm an officer came to my cell and told me that I was free to go and all charges were dropped. The district attorney dropped all charges because my license was NOT suspended.

I have documents from this incident and a letter from the District Attorney that cleared all charges. I lost 4 days of work time and pay due to this incident. Uber deactivated my account due to the report from the passenger.” – Richard

“El amor que sentia por esta ciudad se me ha convertido en un tremendo miedo y muho panico con tantas jodias senales no doble a la isquierda, no le veo el motivo, que no doble a la derecha tampoco veo ningun motivo en algunos lugares ya todo esto de ser driver de taxi dan ganas de llorar y rendirce. A veces pienso todos los dias que esto esta peor que los dictadores.” – Dalia

“When you are immigrant, you went to court, the judge find you guilty because you are immigrant and he cannot understand. He refuses to allow you to explain a full detail of what happen. He made grimace with his face. Shut you off and said you guilty without explanation. You can see 4 traffic agents plus police officer, not directing traffic but waiting to give you ticket because you will end up blocking the street and the box. Driver unable to see in front of them. The traffic agent and the cops saw the street is full, cars kept coming instead of signaling drivers to stop. Taxi drivers thought the traffic is flowing. Taxi Drivers spent more time on the road than any other drivers, we are targeting. These days we make less and less of what we used to make 10 or 15 years ago but the high cost of TLC tickets and regular ones stay the same.” – Eugene

Right now, the core focus of the Independent Drivers Guild is to win a 37% raise and pay regulations. TLC enforcement abuses and injustices is an issue that requires our full attention and more resources than we currently have available to be properly addressed. Since our inception, we have agreed on and identified some preliminary suggestions the TLC enforcement improvements, but this letter in no way does justice for the justified rage workers experience in their relationship with Taxi and Limousine Commission enforcement, and should not be misconstrued as an exhaustive policy letter.

Fines Are Too High, Workers Without Equal Rights

With the steady decrease in pay in the industry and the increase in cost of living and operational expenses, the fine costs are a risk to public safety. The cost of most summons range from $150 (an entire days pay) to $3,000 (a bit more than pay for a month of working 11 hours per day, 5 days a week after expenses).

Our members are piece workers without a set shift, whose piece rate has only ever decreased, who are in debt as a requirement to work, and whose other expenses remain the same while cost of living increases. So when they are issued an expensive summons, most workers only choice is to work longer shifts, putting the public at risk. It’s no wonder our members reported working a median 11 hour workday.

About half of our members that have health insurance are on medicaid — meaning the state recognizes they live in poverty. The fine schedules must be readjusted to reflect the current economic conditions.

The Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) went into effect on June 13, 2017, but no Taxi and Limousine Commission summons’ can be paid by doing community service—that discrepancy should be amended.

A History of Extortion

Many workers report regularly getting tickets without cause, or being entrapped into hefty fines.

Please note: we don’t use the term entrapment lightly. Before mid-2017, we were regularly receiving desperate reports of workers that had been issued a $2,500 ticket at an airport because a “crippled old man” who couldn’t figure out how to use the Uber app offered to pay the worker cash to get them to their destination. Feeling sorry for the older gentleman, who is being oddly pushy, the worker would accept and be fined in the neighborhood of $3,000. This is roughly an entire month’s net income.

While the current Chief of Enforcement at the Taxi and Limousine Commission has assured us that those practices have changed since, and the peace officers are being instructed to focus enforcement efforts on drivers without Taxi and Commission licensing, to a great extent, the damage has been done. Workers will not trust the intentions of the TLC.

Fix the Built Environment, Before Punishing Workers For ‘Undesirable’ Behavior

Oftentimes when a worker violates a rule, they do so because it’s what the built environment, job requirements, or dispatch companies encourage. Many workers are simply making rational decisions in response to their environmental incentives.

The outdated model to modify a person’s behavior through policies is to punish them for behavior society deems undesirable. B.F. Skinner, a renowned psychologist and behaviorist, is known to be the father of Operant Conditioning. Skinner identified three types of responses or operant that can follow behavior:

  • Neutral operants: responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
  • Reinforcers: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative.
  • Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.

In this case, fines and tickets are a punisher, and not a particularly effective one at that.

There are many problems with using punishment as identified by Skinner and other behaviorists, such as:

  • Punished behavior is not forgotten, it’s suppressed – behavior returns when punishment is no longer present.
  • Causes increased aggression – shows that aggression is a way to cope with problems.
  • Creates fear that can generalize to undesirable behaviors, e.g., fear of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
  • Does not necessarily guide toward desired behavior – reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.

We see all of those effects in the industry today. As policymakers, you have the ability to change the environment workers experience and can create incentives for desirable behavior. Some suggestions of that shifting mentality in this context may be:

  • Mandate apps provide and enforce one-touch calling and texting instead of fining workers for handling their phones, which is a requirement of the job.
  • Target the bases that are dispatching unlicensed drivers, not the drivers themselves. If the drivers are fined, they should be allowed to take the 24-Hour course for free to get their license — we’re happy to partner with the TLC to test this idea.
  • Require in-cabin and external dash cam video recording in all TLC-licensed vehicles without a partition. While there is some uncomfortability with the idea of creating a panopticon in the industry, always having recorded proof may prevent incidents from ever happening in the first place, and could modify the behavior of police to discourage abuses of power.

Please note, much of the information in this section was referencing a post on SimplyPsychology by Saul McLeod which describes Operant Conditioning. You may find the original post here: http://idg.ms/OperantConditioning

Insufficient Education Resources

Oftentimes due to liquidity of the labor market in the For-Hire Vehicle industry, workers frequently move from working yellow cab to the black car sector of the industry. Due in part to shoddy education providers and steep language barriers (91% of the industry is an immigrant) the worker may not be knowledgeable of all of the rules of the industry, and be issued a crippling fine without any real recourse.

There are a few policy changes that could help amend the access to education issue:

  • Online schools should not count toward TLC requirements. Workers frequently meet their Defensive Driving Class requirements by paying $60 for an online course which they can get through without paying any attention to it, which is to say, it’s not an effective model for learning.
  • Workers should have the right to choose to take one five hour class when issued a summons with points, in lieu of a fine or points. The class provider should be required to be a nonprofit organization.
  • The Taxi and Limousine Commission should require an accreditation that needs to be maintained annually for 24-Hour Class instructors to ensure high-quality trainings.

The IDG has recently been approved to provide the 24-Hour course and intend to use it to encourage workers into enter ongoing remedial English as a Second Language courses. We also have an interest in teaching workers how to avoid being fired from apps, have the necessary skills to protect themselves, and intensive courses on what their rights are when responsibly interacting with enforcement officers. The IDG provides an intensive Defensive Driving and Safety Class where we dive deeply into current laws and policies, and teach skills to stay safe in the industry.

Competition Between OATH And TLC Is Problematic

After a worker is issued a summons, they are sent an extremely intimidating letter in the mail. That letter essentially says ‘If you take your summons to OATH and fight it in court, not only are you probably wasting your time, but you’re going to pay more money.’ That letter is a pre-court settlement offer from the TLC, but it isn’t perceived as a negotiation; it’s perceived as a threat.

While I doubt it’s the intention or motivation of the Taxi and Limousine Commission to pit workers against the industry and the City Government in its entirety — especially for workers that are from countries where government financial exploitation is the norm — this practice makes it seem like they are being forced to pay more to fight a ticket.

From what I understand, the TLC engages in this practice of sending pre-court settlement offers because OATH and TLC compete for Funding. Whichever agency is most effective at getting money from poor immigrant workers gets a bigger cut of the City’s budget. While the agencies compete, the workers are dying.