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Citing High Costs, 2 Boston Cab Drivers File Suit

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.

Pierre Duchemin is a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed against the City of Boston and three area cab companies. He says he often makes only a "pittance" after he pays fees to cab companies as an independent contractor and wants to be classified as an employee instead. (Beenish Ahmed for WBUR)

Pierre Duchemin is a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed against the City of Boston and three area cab companies. (Beenish Ahmed for WBUR)

“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.

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  • MmeDesLapins

    Cab drivers in our city are on a waybill split *and,* if they don’t make enough to cover what the company considers a minimum, they’re required to pay a flat fee so that the company’s earnings are protected. In addition, if there is a problem with one of the cabs and there is no other cab available, the driver is out of luck until the mechanics make the cab road-worthy again; if the repairs require driving the cab to an outside source, that errand (plus waiting time) must be performed by the driver with no compensation whatsoever. The abuses go on and on and on … but trying to unite drivers is like herding cats.

    • http://www.facebook.com/BostonTaxiCab6172694444 Michael John Carter

       What city are you in?

  • http://www.facebook.com/BostonTaxiCab6172694444 Michael John Carter

    I agree that something needs to be done to make the taxi business a better deal for drivers and these changes would have the potential to make the service better for consumers. However I am clueless how this could be done by making drivers employees. This would present a logistical impossibility. For instance all taxi shifts run 12 hours. They need to be 12 hours because every hour you make money there is an hour you sit and stare at a T station.  Switching taxis every 8 hours would create a severe shortfall in service every 8 hours on the other hand paying a guaranteed 4 hours of overtime every shift would bankrupt a company. Also I have to say Mr.  Duchemin should be careful what he is wishing for. Under the system he is advocating highly productive drivers would be sought after. Mr. Duchemin  seems to be the least productive driver in Suffolk county(possibly the entire Commonwealth). If you were a taxi owner would you employ a driver who doesn’t seem to have the ability to gross good money in a taxi? I know I would not.

    • Guest

      I agree that it’s not clear how making drivers employees will help the situation. However, why did you feel the need to slander Mr. Duchemin?  There is nothing in this article to suggest that he is incompetent.  He is having trouble making a living as a cab driver in Boston, something that I doubt is unique to his personal situation.  

  • Bos912

    I’m a cab driver in Boston for three years, and I am thinking the reason this cost so much is b/c the taxi medallion cost so much money, i have been told it cost 720-750k now, Crazy investors pushing this to a sky high b/c the NYC one sold over 1 million. This business need to be on control now. This piece of steel with a number which paste on the back of my cab I don’t think it worth for this kind of money

  • yml bos

    I empathize with the hard work that cab drivers put in. (My dad was a cab driver, and I know how hard he worked to earn a living.) But, if you ask anyone (at least my dad), no one wants to be employees of the cab companies and be paid minimum wage. The whole idea of being a cab drivers is that, you can at least have some sort of control (and perhaps luck) on your side, that perhaps if you work a bit harder, you can earn a bit more. As employees, your gains are capped.

    I don’t think the plaintiffs in this lawsuit realize what they’re getting themselves into, and I don’t think other cab drivers would welcome a successful outcome of this class action, even though they grumble all day long about work their a$$ off to pay the taxi rent.

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