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Report cites low wages, long hours for Austin ‘s taxi drivers

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The city’s taxi drivers are working for well below the minimum wage and for a lot more than 40 hours a week, according to a report by the Legal Assistance to Microenterprises Project, or LAMP. The report, titled Driving Austin, Driving Injustice, paints a picture of the working life of an average Austin cab driver and offers recommendations to the City Council for comprehensive changes to the taxi system.


To create the report, LAMP, a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, reviewed the history of the current franchise system, studied systems in other major metropolitan areas, and surveyed 66 current Austin drivers. They found that the average driver in the city makes $2.75 an hour, which is $4.50 less than the federal minimum wage. Drivers clear between $150-200 per week. The report also says that the average driver works 12 hours a day, 6.5 days a week, and 51.5 weeks a year. Because drivers are classified as independent contractors, they don’t earn overtime or receive health insurance or other benefits.


The report follows a request to Council for an increase in cab rates made on Dec. 30 of last year by the heads of the city’s three taxi franchises, Austin Cab Company, Lone Star Cab Company, and Yellow Cab Company. That request is currently before the Urban Transportation Commission. The last fare increase came in 2005. Since then, the cost of living has increased 13.7 percent, and taxi-related operating costs have increased 20 percent, according to the report.


The request made by the three franchises, and brought before the Urban Transportation Commission last month by city staff, would include gradual rate increases over three years, an increase in the initial (drop) rate, and would establish a basic minimum rate for trips originating at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Urban Transportation Commission will consider that plan again at its meeting today before deciding on a recommendation to Council.


Despite the fact that representatives from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid spoke against the franchises’ wage increase request in December, claiming the increases were too small and wouldn’t improve the lives of the city’s drivers. The group’s Austin branch manager, D’Ann Johnson, told In Fact Daily that they won’t use information from this new report to try to stop the wage increase from going through.


“The drivers need an increase,” she said. “That’s clear. But this report shows that though a piecemeal approach to wage increases will help somewhat, there needs to be a new ordinance that looks at this problem comprehensively. You can raise rates, but if you don’t address the whole system, it won’t effect what drivers take home.”


According to the LAMP report, to improve the cab system in the city, the Council should:


  • Undertake a study of the taxi industry in Austin and its contributions to the transportation system. “Austin’s transportation planning includes urban rail, commuter rail, and buses, but it doesn’t include cab drivers,” Johnson said;

  • Comprehensively reexamine the ordinances regulating transportation and vehicles for hire prior to considering franchise applications and renewals. This review should include the following issues: permitting allocation formulas, rate increase process, driver job security, living wage, vehicle and driver insurance coverage, health and workers’ compensation insurance coverage, permit transference, fees, and permitting and regulation of other types of vehicles for hire; and

  • Protect drivers who want to organize from retaliation and consider amendments to the ordinances to require driver participation in decisions that affect their livelihood.

These topics most likely won’t be under consideration at today’s Urban Transportation Commission meeting. But Transportation Regulatory Manager Steve Grassfield told In Fact Daily they will be considering a fare increase that would make Austin taxi drivers “the highest paid in the state.”


Johnson said that Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has sent the report to the commissioners and City Council members and others in the hope of stirring up debate and discussion as the city approaches the Strategic Mobility Plan and a possible mobility bond vote in November concerning urban rail.


“This is not a system that’s working,” she said. “We need to take a look at what gaps exist and what we can do to have a responsible cab system, environmentally, fiscally, and that protects workers.”

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