Chicago Cab Drivers Face ‘Impossible Situation’ During Pandemic

Taxi cabs continue to operate but are in low demand in a relatively empty downtown Chicago on April 10, 2020.
Taxi cabs continue to operate but are in low demand in a relatively empty downtown Chicago on April 10, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Taxi cabs continue to operate but are in low demand in a relatively empty downtown Chicago on April 10, 2020.
Taxi cabs continue to operate but are in low demand in a relatively empty downtown Chicago on April 10, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Cab Drivers Face ‘Impossible Situation’ During Pandemic

Nnamdi Uwazie hasn’t worked in two months.

Like many Chicago cab drivers, the pandemic has disrupted his already fragile livelihood. Uwazie said you could spend two days at O’Hare waiting for a single fare.

“48 good hours … I feel it isn’t worth it,” he said.

The taxi cab business has been in turmoil for more than a decade and the pandemic has only made problems worse. According to public taxi data, ridership plummeted as the pandemic crept into the city.

Meg Lewis is Director of Special Projects at AFSCME 31, the union that represents cab drivers in Chicago. She said they’re in an “impossible situation.”

“They are not able to provide food or pay rent,” she said. “Many of them have medallion loan payments that if they miss they can go into foreclosure and can lose not only their livelihoods but their only asset. This comes on the heels of an industry collapse.”

In Chicago, cab drivers are licensed as chauffeurs, and according to data from Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, about 12,700 are licensed in the city.

Drivers that were already struggling to keep their heads above water are now drowning, Lewis said.

“There’s just no business,” she said. “I’m sure if you drive by any taxi company, you’re going to see empty parking lots full of vacant cabs that are off the road.”

The most recent data on Chicago’s taxi industry is from March, the end of the city’s first quarter. At the start of March, there were around 40,000 taxi rides in Chicago a day, and began declining two weeks in.

Last year, taxi drivers gave more than 1.5 million rides in March and took in more than $27 million in fares, according to city data. Last month, that number dropped to 557,000 rides, and brought in only $10 million.

The taxi industry was already in trouble. A New York Times investigation last year found that Uber and Lyft have undercut its profits, while drivers were left paying off essentially worthless medallions that were once a valuable investment. Predatory lending practices led some drivers to suicide.

Lewis from AFSCME said before the pandemic, taxi drivers made the majority of their income giving rides to and from airports, hotels and convention centers. Now, the few still driving are mostly transporting sick people, putting their own health at risk in the process.

Others who lease cabs for about $500 a week are deciding to stay off the streets because they’ll just lose money.

Uwazie is asthmatic and therefore high-risk for COVID-19 complications. He has to stay home, even though he’s exhausted all of his savings.

He said it drives him crazy to do nothing while bills pile up. His hope now is to get unemployment. At the start of the pandemic, taxi drivers were not eligible for unemployment benefits because they are independent contractors.

Many drivers owe hundreds of thousands in loans for taxi medallions sold to them at inflated prices. With no income and mounting debt, there is no way to keep up with bills.

This led some of his friends to surrender their medallions to the city, just so fines and fees wouldn’t add up.

“The majority have done that,” he said. “[The city] will suspend the ground transportation tax.”

The $2 trillion federal CARES Act package is supposed to extend temporary unemployment benefits to gig-workers like Uwazie, but the Department of Labor didn’t issue guidelines for the new program until April 5.

Lewis said that Illinois hasn’t yet processed those claims. She said drivers can monitor the AFSCME Local 31 Facebook for information and filing assistance.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security says benefits will be available to gig workers starting May 11.

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ.