BOSTON — Many Bostonians grumble about the high cost of taxi rides in this city. But as it turns out, cabbies are grumbling too — about the high costs of driving cabs. Two shift drivers are so fed up with the fees they pay to rent taxis from cab companies that they’ve filed a class-action lawsuit to win back the fees and get wage guarantees.
Pierre Douchemin, 55, is a lead plaintiff in the case. He has a graying beard and wears his hair tucked into what looks like a Rasta cap. Douchemin is from Haiti and was surprised when he found out how hard it is to make a living as a Boston cabbie. He says his situation is so bad that he feels like an indentured servant.
“The money you earn yesterday is going to pay for the cab today,” Douchemin says.
Taxi drivers pay for their own gas, insurance and tolls if they aren’t carrying a passenger. But that isn’t all.
A city-issued medallion is required to operate a cab in Boston, and it isn’t cheap. The price of a medallion can run up to a half-million dollars at auction. Companies that own medallions ask drivers to share that cost through a daily fee. Altogether, shift drivers can pay up to $150 out of what they take home every day.
“Essentially, cab drivers pay to work,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing Douchemin and his fellow lead plaintiff, Bernard Sabago. Liss-Riordan doesn’t think shift drivers’ arrangement with cab companies is legal.
Earlier this month, her clients filed the lawsuit to be seen not as independent contractors but as employees. That way, they’d be guaranteed at least the minimum wage.
“They perform the core operation that these businesses are in existence to provide,” Liss-Riordan says. “And so for that reason alone, under Massachusetts law, the cab drivers are employees of the cab companies.”
But before the case is heard, she will have to certify that all shift drivers in Boston constitute a class. Liss-Riordan argues that the city dictates much of what cabbies do, right down to what they wear. That’s why she doesn’t think gaining class certification will be a problem.
Once certified, the class would sue the City of Boston, along with the Independent Operators Association, Boston Cab Dispatch and USA Taxi Association — which all operate within Boston city limits.
No one from the city or those three companies agreed to speak to WBUR for this story.
But cab company owner John Ford did. He operates Top Cab/City Cab out of Revere. He says the case is ironic because cab drivers used to be employees until they made a push to become independent contractors in the 1970s. Ford was one of them.
“I couldn’t wait to become an independent contractor,” he says, “because I didn’t want to give the company half of what I brought in.”
Since then, Ford has done just about every job in the industry, from painting cabs to dispatching them. He doesn’t think the plaintiffs’ complaints against companies are valid.
“No one’s going to go out there and work 60 hours for zero,” Ford says. “These two gentlemen who say they make no money, maybe they should work harder.”
But some drivers say working harder won’t change the fact that the economy is killing business. One cabbie told me he’s been driving for 20 years and has never seen such a slump.
But there is some hope. Cab drivers have sought steadier pay through employee status in dozens of cases across the country — and won.