For taxi drivers, COVID is a brutal dilemma

“I can’t even afford to go to work,” said taxi driver Colin Marcoux, who has been driving a taxi for more than two decades.

COVID has caused a sharp drop in taxi ridership as people comply with the city’s shelter-in-place order, which was extended until May 3. Due to the lack of customers, many taxi drivers parked their taxis rather than continuing to work. Kelly Dessaint, Taxi Driver and SF Examiner Columnist, explained to me why many drivers decide to stop driving.

Hansu Kim, Flywheel taxi manager, says most of his fleet is parked.

“People make ten dollars a day… I bet the [Yellow Cab parking] a lot is a sea of ​​yellow… when I was working it was all personal cars, ”Dessaint said.

Hansu Kim, owner of Flywheel Taxi, estimates that only about a third of San Francisco’s 1,410 taxis are still active. Muwaffaq Mustafa, Flywheel Taxi’s director of operations, told me that Flywheel and its partner taxi companies have 550 taxis in their fleet, and currently only 125 are on the route. Calls for taxis have fallen 85% since the shelter was put in place, according to Mustafa.

“With each passing day there is less and less business,” Mustafa said.

I contacted the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which regulates the taxi industry in San Francisco, and was told that it does not record taxi dispatch data. Kim also confirmed this to be true.

Even before the coronavirus, the taxi industry faced stiff competition from Uber and Lyft. Now, with extremely low attendance due to the pandemic, drivers fear this may be the last nail in the coffin. Kim is concerned that Flywheel Taxi will fail due to the pandemic.

“With this closure, it is about the survival of our business. Two-thirds of my taxis are parked, ”Kim said.

The problem is the essential role that taxis play in paratransit services in San Francisco.

Since the passage of Proposition E in 1999, the SFMTA has regulated taxi companies in San Francisco, and since then has incorporated taxis into its fleet of paratransit vehicles, which offer discounted rides for people. the elderly and the disabled.

During the COVID pandemic, taxis have been essential in helping the elderly and disabled to get to hospital and other essential trips.

“I spend half of my day taking elderly and disabled people to the grocery store,” Marcoux said.

The SFMTA also said taxis are essential to SF’s paratransit system. A statement from SFMTA spokeswoman Erica Kato said that “taxis have been an integral part of paratransit since the early 1980s and San Francisco has offered wheelchair accessible ramp taxi service from the start. 1990s. We are proud that taxis continue to provide these essential services to our most vulnerable citizens in these difficult times. “

While taxi drivers have the option of parking their taxis, many feel that they cannot, given their imperative role in the paratransit system.

“The guy I’m driving with is seventy years old. What am I supposed to do, let him die? Sutter said. His passenger also rang the bell: “We are panicking,” he said.

Sutter and other taxi drivers, he explained, are dedicated to helping the elderly, and given how often their passengers are elderly and disabled, many believe that if they don’t work, they will leave behind them these vulnerable people, a prospect made particularly dangerous. by the coronavirus.

Although many taxi drivers are dedicated to helping vulnerable populations during the pandemic, many are concerned about their health and that of their households as their jobs require them to be near strangers. Several of the drivers I spoke to mentioned that they do not receive personal protective equipment.

“The city should provide all frontline workers with PPE,” said Brent Johnson, another taxi driver. “I have a firefighter friend and we compare our scores every day. We are alarmed that not all frontline people have PPE. “

Taxi drivers, who wish to continue serving those who need paratransit services for essential journeys, also feel in conflict as their lack of protection makes them possible vectors of the coronavirus, infecting the very population they attempt. to serve.

“I had a flag the other day around Post and Fillmore, it was an 82 year old woman doing the grocery shopping, and I was terrified for her. I was glad she was in my cab because I wipe things down well, ”Johnson said.

In anticipation of this risk, many taxi companies, including Yellow Cab, advertise that their taxis are “sanitized,” which means the taxi is regularly cleaned and areas frequently touched by cars, such as door handles. , are cleaned with disinfectant wipes.

But paratransit journeys alone are not enough to support taxi drivers at this time. To try to make ends meet, many taxi drivers are now delivering food for apps like Caviar and Doordash, although that is still not enough.

“It’s the only way for me to make money. I deliver for Caviar and Doordash, and I barely earn enough to survive, ”Sutter said. Johnson told me that because food delivery apps like Caviar are only busy between 4 and 9 p.m., there just isn’t enough work to make the amount of money they need.

Taxi drivers will rely on federal help to get by, but there are concerns about how they will file for unemployment. The CARE Act, a $ 2.2 trillion relief measure that was passed on March 23 by Congress, extends UI to sole proprietors and independent contractors, but when I contacted the Department of State of California’s employment development, they responded by saying that California had yet to amend their UI code to comply with the measure. As a result, independent contractors and sole proprietors are still largely exempt from coverage, including the additional $ 600 on top of regular unemployment benefits and the 13-week extension of benefits paid by the federal government when a person runs out of work. regular unemployment insurance claim:

The EDD has reviewed the federal CARES law and is working on the programming needed to implement the new unemployed provisions, but like all other states, we are still awaiting further guidance from the United States Department of Labor (DOL) to complete. this programming… The EDD is working quickly with state partners to serve unemployed Californians who are not generally eligible for regular state unemployment benefits, including the self-employed.

The EDD is also not sure how it will accept tax returns from independent contractors who do not receive W2 forms and are largely paid in cash, which includes taxi drivers.

When taxi drivers, who are technically self-employed, apply for unemployment insurance, they can put their own name as the former employer and immediate supervisor in their application.

According to Matthew Daus, partner and chairman of the Windels Marx transportation practice group at New York law firm Windels, Marx, Lane & Mittendorf, one option available to taxi drivers is to apply for a small business loan. as part of the payroll protection program established by the CARE Act. The principal of the loan can be forgiven if it is used for the costs of operating the business and will be the equivalent of about two and a half months of the income of the business, with interest rates set at 0 , 5%. According to Jeannie Occhiogrosso, lawyer at Windels, Marx, Lane & Mittendorf, eligible costs would include car payments like gasoline, tires, other maintenance and interest on locket loans.

When filing your application, you will need to provide proof of income, either in the form of bank statements or tax documents, according to Occhiogrosso. Whether you need to bring a bank statement or tax documents will be up to your bank or credit union’s wishes, so you’ll need to call them to find out. Occhiogrosso assured me that lenders are likely to be flexible in what tax returns they will accept when qualifying borrowers.

“The lenders won’t be crazy,” Occhiogrosso said.

Occhiogrosso encourages those looking for a small business loan to apply as soon as possible, as the CARE law caps the amount available for loans at $ 349 billion.

“There might not be enough money left to get two and a half months of income if you apply in May,” Occhiogrosso said.

You can complete the request here. If you are a borrower, and what additional information about the PPP forgivable loan program, you will know more about it here. Contact your bank or credit union to find out more about the documents they will need to determine your eligibility for a covered loan.

Banks and credit unions interested in becoming a federally authorized lender for PPP loans can determine their eligibility and learn more here.

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About Harold Shirley

Harold Shirley

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