It’s a ghost town, Tang says as he drives through Chinatown.

Wayne Chin, who has been driving a yellow cab since 1992, has been unemployed in New York since the pandemic. According to him, the ability to attract multiple clients does not justify the risk of contracting Covid-19 and possibly transferring the disease to his wife and three children.

Fault! The file name is not specified.

Moreover, many motorists have stopped driving for fear of infection with the virus.

According to Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance (NYTWA), the drivers were among the first to be exposed to Covid. We’ve lost so many drivers.

For many of those who stopped driving, government unemployment checks became their only source of income. When they ended in summer, some drivers like Tang had no choice but to return to their jobs as a taxi driver. At 36, he thinks he’s less likely to get the virus, but the worry is there. In December, Tang said, a driver who often drove to the same taxi rank in Chinatown died of complications on Covid-19.

History of an industrial tragedy

For Desai and other NYTWA members, the tragedy is all too familiar in the industry.

Traditionally, taxis in large cities need medallions – official permits that allow yellow taxis to hail on the streets. The new medallions are sold by the city or bought at auction more often.

In 2018, nine salaried drivers committed suicide in New York, crushed by the financial pressure of the medal debt. Three of them were yellow taxi drivers.

Fault! The file name is not specified.

Among the victims was Kenny Chow, a 56-year-old yellow taxi driver. His older brother, Richard Chow, is tormented by the memory of Kenny’s loss.

I told him to fight bankruptcy, Chow. I didn’t know he’d make that decision. Very heartbreaking.

Immigrants help each other

The Chow brothers were good friends of Chin, they were united by their common Burmese ancestry, and together they overcame the hardships of immigrant life.

In an industry mainly made up of immigrant workers and where language can be a barrier, the handing over of rental documents for medallions can be a problem. Chin often sits down with new drivers to make sure they understand the documents they sign and don’t fall into debt.

Fault! The file name is not specified.

A report released in June 2020 showed that immigrants in New York City were hit hardest by the pandemic, with some organizations claiming that 75 percent of their customers were hungry. Chow agrees that he has no choice but to buy cheap, sometimes stale food. During the pandemic, he increasingly relied on the emotional support of his colleagues and the union.

After Kenny’s death, Chin and Richard talk to each other every day and regularly visit Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Kenny committed suicide.

You lean against the railing, look at the East River and stop for a second. Richard prays that the other drivers don’t suffer the same fate as his brother.

Industrial promissory notes

Richard bought his medallion in 2006 for $410,000. Fifteen years later, he still owes $390,000. Thousands of riders feel the same way… to fight.

After his death, Tang took over his father’s debt of $530,000 and now pays his asset manager more than $2,800 a month, even though he can only carry a few passengers per shift.

When car-sharing platforms such as Uber and Lyft entered the market in early 2010, the value of the taximedaillon declined.

The medallions, which were worth more than $1 million in 2013, are now worth between $75,000 and $100,000, giving the drivers an average debt of $450,000, according to Desai.

Fault! The file name is not specified.

For thousands of owners, the medallions have become a gateway to a stable middle class life, Desai said, especially for immigrants. For many, this dream will never come true.

In 2013, yellow taxis made almost half a million journeys a day. In 2020 this number will be 50,000 to 60,000. But the yellow taxi industry has already started bleeding out the pre-pandemic.

As unregulated rental vehicles flood the streets, investment platforms such as Uber and Lyft underestimate the rates that can absorb losses. Because the drivers came to these cheaper and more accessible taxis, the yellow taxi drivers were left out in the cold.

Attempts to close the gap have largely failed. Several yellow taxi applications have emerged in recent years, but these have not been successful in bringing customers back.

Runners fighting for legislation

In response, NYTWA organized numerous events throughout New York City in the hope of passing legislation in support of the yellow taxi industry. In September, hundreds of yellow taxi drivers stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge to seek debt relief. Tang, Chow and Chin actively participated in NYTWA events.

The protests culminated in a motorcade from New York City to Washington, D.C., with yellow taxi drivers from Maryland and Philadelphia. They parked in front of the Capitol Hill to demand Congress approve the incentive bill.

We have people who play politics with their lives, Tang said.

NYTWA sent a proposal to New York requesting support for the restructuring of loans up to a maximum of $125,000 per medallion. Drivers are always responsible for the payment of the loan, and if the loan is overdue, the medallion is returned and auctioned.

The plan would cost $75 million over 20 years for a city with an annual budget of $92 billion.

New York Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York Attorney General Letitia James have expressed their support for NYTWA’s proposal, as have prominent politicians such as Congressman Ocasio-Cortez of Alexandria and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Desai says the yellow taxi drivers almost won before the pandemic. As Covid-19 crossed the city and countryside, the attention of the taxi drivers shifted. Nevertheless, Desai and other drivers are optimistic that they will finally get the support they need from legislators.

Thanks to the quarantine we have created a real sense of community, says Desai. She noted that the number of trade union members has even increased in 2020.

Fault! The file name is not specified.

For Tang, unity is the key to victory. Despite an age difference of a few decades, he calls Chin and Chou his brothers. He first befriended them at a Kenny Chow wake in 2018, and their band has only grown stronger since then.

I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I believe we can make a difference if we bring enough people together, Tang says.

That’s what we’ll keep fighting for. We keep making noise.

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