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The stories are so eerily similar that they could very well describe the same incident. A wary cab driver casts a sidelong glance at a passenger in the rearview mirror. The driver is directed to turn onto an unfamiliar street. A gun is drawn. The fear is palpable. The driver’s life hangs in the balance.
The rash of armed robberies that has hit Philadelphia’s taxicab industry has forced too many cab drivers to confront such a moment. Driving a taxi in Philadelphia is an extremely dangerous job.
It has been especially hazardous as of late. This year, the violence included the May shooting death of cab driver Hafiz Sarafaraz in a West Philadelphia robbery, but nearly everyday, the drivers say, there are incidents involving danger, assaults and theft.
In September, drivers asked the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), which oversees the taxi industry, to take steps to lessen the danger, including in-cab cameras, panic buttons connected directly to police, trouble lights on cabs, posters warning of mandatory sentences for cab driver robberies, and a driver relief fund. The board approved the first four requests and is working to implement them.
The fifth request—a fund that would be tantamount to Worker’s Compensation for cab drivers injured on the job—was not approved.
“The [PPA Board doesn’t] seem to understand that when drivers are hurt, assaulted or killed they have needs, too,” said Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania. “They have to pay rent and buy food in order for their families to survive.”
I requested comment from PPA Taxicab and Limousine director James Ney, who did not respond by the deadline for this story
On average, Blount said, drivers make about $5 an hour, after deducting the cost of gas and cab rental fees. If something happens to them on the job, they often can’t afford to take time off. And because they are considered independent contractors, they are not eligible for Worker’s Compensation under Pennsylvania law.
Blount and his union allies have tried without success to push a change in the law, but that is a complicated matter that could leave all kinds of employers open to paying Workman’s Compensation for independent contractors. But Blount and others say cab drivers hurt on the job can’t wait for the politics to change, because too many are already dealing with devastating consequences.
Alfa Balde, a 69-year-old immigrant from Guinea, West Africa, is among them.
On the afternoon of April 19, while on his way to the airport, where he normally picks up between three and seven fares per shift, Balde noticed that his taxicab was running low on gas, so he stopped at a Sunoco gas station on Island Ave.
“I bought gas using my credit card,” said Balde, who still speaks with a heavy accent even after spending the bulk of the last 13 years in Philadelphia. “From the machine there was no receipt … so I went to the booth to get my receipt. I got my receipt and I come to go back to my cab. After two steps somebody stopped behind me and said, ‘You touched me.’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah. I am sorry.’ I made two steps again. I turned my face to look at this guy to make sure he accepted my apology. As soon as I turned my face he punched me on the mouth and from that I know nothing.”
Balde was knocked unconscious. For a time, he was comatose. He had an MRI. He had surgery on his right elbow, and because his fingers were damaged, he underwent therapy to learn to write again. He spent three months in a wheelchair and one month with a walker at home, paying for some of the medical equipment himself. But there were thousands of dollars worth of medical expenses paid by Medicare. Balde will have to pay those costs back. As a result, he is now back behind the wheel of a taxicab, because, he says, he refuses to beg, and he refuses to be frightened by what he’s experienced as a cab driver.
“Twice before I had a gun to my head,” Balde said. “I say everyday you can make money because you are alive. But if you are dead you cannot make money. I give them whatever they ask and I tell them I will not call the police.”
Blount, the Pennsylvania Taxicab Association president, understands that sentiment, having driven a Philadelphia taxicab 1983 to 2006. “I got robbed when I was driving,” Blount said. “When the guy put the gun to my head and said, ‘Give me your money,’ I said, ‘Take it.’ He said, ‘Give me your coat, too.’ I said, ‘Take it.’ He said, ‘I want the car keys.’ I said, ‘Take those, too.’”
The money is not worth his life, Blount said, but the money is so hard to come by that many drivers don’t give it up easily.
“The cab owners charge $70 a day for the rent, $50 a day for gasoline and $1.50 for each airport trip—maybe two or three a shift—and five percent on credit cards,” Blount said. “Averaging that together they owe $150 a day before they even start.”
It can take half of a 12-hour shift just to pay that money back, Blount said.
Other than the $5,000 insurance maximum for injuries incurred in car accidents, drivers are not covered, Blount said. Therefore, if drivers who rent cabs are hurt and forced to stay out for an extended period of time, the owners can give the cab to someone else. With 5,000 drivers and only 1,600 cabs, most drivers can’t afford to take that chance, so they simply drive hurt.
That’s a problem that puts everyone who uses cabs at risk, said Lance Haver, the city’s Director of Consumer Affairs Lance Haver.
“I don’t use cabs that often,” Haver said, “but if I get in one I would like to think the driver is healthy … I don’t want him to be forced back to work after he’s cut up with a knife. I want to make sure he’s healed enough to drive. Until we do that we will continue to put people at risk.”
Still, changing state law to make independent contractors eligible for Worker’s Compensation is a tough sell in Harrisburg. The drivers know it, and so do their allies, including Liz McElroy, secretary treasurer and political director of Philadelphia AFL_CIO, who has been working with the drivers on a range of issues.
Even if the politics won’t allow the change to be made now, “I don’t think it’s wrong for workers to stand together and say, ‘We need this for our families,’” she said.
To that end, the drivers and others in the industry have begun to look for other ways to create a safety net. The Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association, which represents dispatchers and medallion owners, is partnering with the Taxi Workers Alliance to give drivers the option to purchase insurance that would function in the same way as Worker’s Comp.
“What I think we’re going to start with is an Occupational Accidental policy,” said Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association Executive Director David Alperstein. “It’s basically an insurance policy. Each driver will be able to pay into this, probably somewhere between $90 and $100 a month. There would be accidental death benefits, medical coverage up to a certain amount above and beyond in the event that they’re injured on the job driving a taxicab.”
Alperstein estimates that 2,500 drivers would be involved and that it would take several months to get the insurance plan up and running.
In the meantime, Philadelphia’s cab drivers continue to take their lives into their own hands while eking out a living in a high-risk profession.
It just doesn’t seem fair, said Balde, the driver who was severely beaten in the gas station assault on Island Ave.
“Even the dog, if you have a dog, you have to answer for that. But a cab driver you can do whatever you want. They are not human beings.”