Study: Taxi-Driver Income a Pittance

Study: Taxi-Driver Income a Pittance

A new study finds that Chicago cab drivers make a lot less than you may think and that they work more hours than most people. Taxi drivers hope the results will refuel a debate about meter fares, which the city hasn’t boosted since 2005.

Fayez Khozindar idles in a taxi stand outside an office tower downtown.

KHOZINDAR: We’ve been standing here for about 30 minutes. OK, this passenger who took a cab behind me, he took Yellow Cab because he got a voucher for [that] company.
PASSENGER: Hello. 1749 North Wells, please. And can we take Lake Shore?

Khozindar says he’s on the way to about 20 fares today. Most of that money will go toward expenses like gas, insurance, maintenance, a loan for his car, and various taxes and fees. Khozindar owns his own medallion — most Chicago drivers have to rent theirs — but he says his income remains meager.

KHOZINDAR: It could be $5.50 to $6 an hour.

To support his wife and four sons, Khozindar says he has to work every day of the week. He says he’s often behind the wheel for 16 hours straight.

KHOZINDAR: After eight hours, that’s in your pocket. You make money after that.
MITCHELL: And if you’re doing this seven days a week, what kind of family life do you have?
KHOZINDAR: I don’t have a family life. This is not a family-life job. You really lose your connection with your family.

Khozindar chairs the United Taxidrivers Community Council. The group formed last year with help from the American Friends Service Committee.

The council and committee commissioned a University of Illinois survey that reached 920 of Chicago’s roughly 13,000 cab drivers last summer. The study’s author is Robert Bruno, an associate professor of the university’s Labor and Employment Relations School. Bruno calls the findings alarming.

BRUNO: The average hourly income for a cab driver in Chicago was $4.38, roughly a third of what the hourly livable rate would be according to most mainstream labor economists in this country.

Bruno says that pay includes tips.

BRUNO: They’re compelled to work an obscene number of hours a day. The average hours on a shift exceeds 13. And, on a weekly basis, they were putting in 78 hours on the road.

ALLEN: That’s kind of incredible.

Alderman Tom Allen is skeptical. He chairs the city council’s Transportation Committee.

ALLEN: It kind of begs the question, ‘What are you doing? You make more than $4 an hour flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.’ Right?

Allen says he wants taxi drivers to earn more but must consider how a fare hike would affect the city’s restaurant and tourism industries.

ALLEN: We’ve had cab drivers come before our committee and say, ‘No, don’t raise the fares, because we’re going to drive customers away.’

At Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, Commissioner Norma Reyes points out that the survey took place when fuel prices were at historic highs. A drop in gas prices has increased what taxi drivers take home by roughly $2 an hour.

Reyes also says you can’t measure the income of drivers by surveying them.

REYES: For a more accurate study, you can look at tax returns, you can look at meter receipts.

Commissioner Reyes says the city’s most recent look at those receipts shows drivers taking in as much as $80,000 a year. But that’s gross, not net.

PASSENGER: Oh, $8 only?
KHOZINDAR: Yeah, $8. Thanks.

Khozindar’s passenger gets out a few miles north of the Loop.

KHOZINDAR: Here you go, M’am.
PASSENGER: Thank you. Have a nice day.
KHOZINDAR: You too, M’am. I appreciate it. Thanks.

Khozindar came to Chicago from the Gaza Strip. So he’s an immigrant, like most other taxi drivers in the city. But unlike most, Khozindar has lived in the United States for decades. He notices a certain mindset among the more recent arrivals.

KHOZINDAR: Most of them, they think this is a way of life. But drivers are not slaves. They have human rights and dignity. And we intend to defend the drivers so they can have their rights in this city.

Based on today’s report, Khozindar’s group is calling for taxi-driver income to match the state’s minimum wage by the end of the year. But the city is all but ruling out a fare hike any time soon.