Cab drivers seek remedy to unfair pay in courts

Taxis in BostonTaxis in Boston

After two years driving a taxi, Yogesh Sagar has decided to seek justice.

“On a typical weekday, I might bring in $150 in fares, but with all the fees the cab company collects, there might be $40 left,” said Sagar, 58. So after weighing the risks, Sagar has volunteered to be lead plaintiff in a new lawsuit filed last month in Middlesex Superior Court against Ambassador Brattle Taxi of Cambridge.

The suit is the latest in a series of actions filed by Boston attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan on behalf of taxi drivers. Liss-Riordan is suing Boston Cab, the Independent Taxi Operators Association and other large fleet owners as well as the City of Boston for practices she contends violate Massachusetts employment law.

Cab drivers in Boston and surrounding communities work as independent contractors, paying a so-called shift fee to lease the cab from the medallion owner, usually a cab company. Drivers also pay for gas, insurance and tolls, as much as $150 per 12-hour shift. The driver keeps whatever he brings in.

“But many drivers struggle to make enough in fares and tips to cover their expenses,” Liss-Riordan said. “Often they are in the red.”

And it works out to well below the minimum wage of $8 per hour.

Boston driver Pierre Duchemin, 55, lead plaintiff in the earlier Boston lawsuits, said he often works more than 12 hours, sometimes a double shift. As independent contractors, he and other drivers are not eligible for overtime, workmen’s compensation or unemployment benefits.

“The City of Boston aids and abets these wage violations,” Liss-Riordan said.

The Hackney Bureau of the Police Department, the city agency that regulates the taxi industry, sets forth a lease agreement in which the driver is an independent contractor. Liss-Riordan argues that under Massachusetts law, drivers should properly be classified as employees because they perform the core service cab companies provide.

“We are seeking to recover all these fees,” she said. “The shift fees, the gas, the tolls, even the six percent processing fee the company deducts when the passenger pays by credit card.”

According to Duchemin, after taking out its processing fee, the cab company gives the driver the remaining money on a prepaid debit card that charges $1.50 each time the card is accessed, even to find out the balance.

“When the passenger swipes a credit card for a $4.50 fare, they don’t realize that after six percent comes out, and $1.50 comes out, and another $1.50 comes out, there is not much left,” said Duchemin.

The biggest concern, drivers agree, is not getting radio calls. Drivers pay a fee for radio dispatch service, which they depend on to stay busy. “We pay $117 per week and get maybe two calls per day,” said Duchemin.

Sagar pays $80 per week and gets 0-8 calls per day, mostly short jobs, he said.

Drivers have no choice but to cruise the streets or sit in long lines at cab stands or in the taxi pool at the airport.

“People complain to the city that they can’t get a cab, but it is actually radio dispatch that is responsible,” said Duchemin.

Liss-Riordan is interviewing drivers to learn more about their experiences with the radio dispatch system.

Is there enough business out there for cab drivers to make a living?
“That’s the interesting thing about this situation,” said Liss-Riordan. “The companies get their shift fees whether the drivers make money or not. It is a guaranteed revenue stream. It doesn’t matter to the companies whether there is enough business out there.”