Excessive fines and fees charged to drivers by taxicab companies are draining drivers’ incomes, meaning the only way they can survive is by relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, public housing assistance, and Medicaid and Medicare.
That’s what a group of about 50 drivers told lawmakers Saturday during a town hall put on by the Nevada Black Legislative Caucus.
“In Las Vegas, we have a very serious problem with the drivers’ community in regards to taxi and rideshare income,” said Sarah Hall, one of the drivers who have banded together as the Freedom Transportation Workers Cooperative. “No one is making money even with working 72 hours a week. Taxicab companies have a predatory lease program that takes advantage of a highly immigrant workforce.”
In the last legislative session, members from the Freedom Transportation Workers Cooperative rallied behind Assembly Bill 402, which would have created a transportation workers cooperative as another option for drivers other than the traditional taxicab industry or rideshare companies.
Wearing shirts that read “Give Me Freedom; Yes on AB 402” taxicab drivers, along with some rideshare drivers, confronted legislators Saturday for failing to even hear the bill.
“Give a message from us to Assemblyman Jason Frierson,” one member said during the question. “We are very disappointed.”
(The group was told the Assembly speaker was absent from the town hall because he was traveling out of state.)
Lawmakers took time earlier in the event to highlight the progress they made during the legislative session on criminal justice reforms and other issues. However, most of the audience, members of the Freedom Transportation Workers, used the gathering to ask legislators questions, share stories of hardships, and make the case for reform.
“You’re telling us the economy is good and you’ve passed a lot of wonderful bills,” Hall said. But “drivers are losing our homes and can’t afford our mortgages. The rents are unaffordable.”
Drivers point to a lofty $1,100 a week fee they have to pay in order to lease a cab.
“The Authority does not regulate the prices for weekly leases, those are set by the market,” said Scott Whittemore, the administrator with the Nevada Taxicab Authority, in an email to Nevada Current. He said that leasing prices usually range from $700 to $1,000 per week.
Under state law, taxicabs must have a medallion, which is a special plate issued by the Nevada Taxicab Authority that permits the taxicab to legally operate. Dan Killoran, a board member with the Freedom Transportation Workers, said the taxicab industry is “holding all the medallions hostage” by paying the Nevada Taxicab Authority $100 per year and then charging drivers up to ten times that a week.
According to Whittemore, there are currently 3,530 medallions which have been allocated to 16 taxicab companies certified by the Nevada Taxicab Authority board.
Before they can take a profit — i.e. make a living to survive — drivers must first account for the fees they owe cab companies, which is becoming much harder Killoran said.
With a surplus of drivers on the road from taxis and rideshare, earnings have decreased.
Killoran remembers a time when he could earn $300 to $400 a night from driving. But now the average fare per night has shrunk to what he estimates is about $150 to $200 on a good night.
“So if I’m making $200 a night or $1,200 a week and have to pay $1,100 a week, I’m only making $100,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”
Many of the drivers argued the Nevada Taxicab Authority, the state’s regulatory agency that oversees the industry, allows taxicab companies to “write their own rules.”
“How is this acceptable?” Hall asked lawmakers. “Why is this allowed?”
Assembly Bill 402, put forth by Democratic Assemblyman Alexander Assefa, was what Freedom Transportation Workers viewed as a solution to the problems drivers faced from taxicab companies. The bill would have only applied to counties with a population of more than 700,000 people, which is only Clark County.
“It would have been great for drivers, the state and tourists,” Killoran added.
Instead of paying $1,100 a week to a taxicab company for the right to operate a cab, under the legislation drivers would have paid a one-time $300 fee to join the cooperative and then $250 per month.
Killoran said the bill would be good for riders too since the transportation cooperative would have helped eliminate long-hauling by establishing flat rates, and capped excessive credit card fees, which he said taxicabs currently have.
While long-hauling is prohibited under Nevada law, Killoran said it’s not only going on, but drivers are often punished for not practicing it.
Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, who chairs the Committee for Growth and Infrastructure to which the legislation was assigned, said there “wasn’t enough time to work the bill.”
“It’s a complicated bill and a complicated issue,” she said.
Currently, there is a 3 percent excise tax on the total fare charged for taxi rides. AB 402 would have exempted taxi cab cooperatives from the tax.
Monroe-Moreno told the group to work with lawmakers during the interim to better educate them on the issues they face. “Collectively, we all know there is a problem that needs to be fixed,” she said. “You have a solution to that problem or you feel that you do. But the issues and the problems that are going on, we need you to let us know what that is.”
Killoran, who wasn’t surprised the bill died in session, said he believes Monroe-Moreno when she says the bill was “too heavy a lift” for the amount of time lawmakers had during the 120-day session.
However, he also worries the taxicab industry’s influence and political contributions might have helped kill the bill, and might continue to jeopardize any progress.
“Thousands of drivers could have had a chance at a better-paying job,” Killoran said. “It never got a vote. It didn’t even get a hearing.”