Taxi Drivers on the Brink Amid Mounting Financial Pressures

William Godson turned on the radio at his home to get information, as usual. He was astonished to hear that Yu Mein Chow, a Queens resident and taxi driver, committed suicide. The police, the radio reported, found the body floating in the East River on May 23. Mr. Chow, known as Kenny, was the fifth taxi driver to commit suicide in the last five months.

Mr. Chow’s family members, still piecing together the tragedy, attribute his death to financial difficulty.

It is a circumstance Mr. Godson, 57, said he knows all too well. He remembers the obstacles he faced as a yellow cab driver two years ago, before losing his eyesight to glaucoma. But vision is not all Mr. Godson lost. In 2016, a lender repossessed the medallion that he purchased in the 1990s, a decade after arriving in the United States from Nigeria.

“I don’t miss driving a taxi,” Mr. Godson said. “It was a struggle.”

Mr. Godson wasn’t outside City Hall on Tuesday, where approximately 150 taxi drivers from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance gathered, but the drivers that did attend showed up to support people like him.

About 150 protesters went to City Hall to support a bill that could help level the playing field between medallion taxis and ride-hailing services. Aileen Perilla/NYT Institute

The crowd chanted “driver power,” in support of their proposed bill for a minimum fare across the industry, lower interest rates from lenders and a health and benefits fund, which would include retirement for all drivers.

The frustrated taxi drivers said they were done discussing their plight, and wanted legislative action so other drivers could avoid the fate of Mr. Godson, whose predicament is all too common.

A medallion allows operation of the ubiquitous New York City yellow taxi. Not too long ago, a medallion, which was strictly regulated and could sell for more than $1 million, could secure a driver’s future. But when ride-hailing services arrived, far more options were available to riders. The price of a medallion fell to as low as $170,000, the Taxi and Limousine Commission reported. But drivers still have to pay off their high-level loans, without the fares to do so.

It still stings Mr. Godson that he was unable to maintain interest payments and medical expenses because of his deteriorating eyes and decreased earnings from his 12- to 14-hour shifts competing with mobile ride-hailing services like Uber.

Scraping by in an East Flatbush, Brooklyn, home, without his medallion or eyesight, Mr. Godson said he is hounded by auditors to make payments on a $560,000 loan he took to purchase the medallion. The bank is suing him in Kings County Supreme Court.

With the advent of ride-hailing mobile applications, hundreds of taxi drivers are in debt similar to his, organizers said. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the workers’ alliance, said she has never seen this level of desperation. Before Mr. Chow’s death, he was struggling to pay off a $700,000 loan.

“How dare this city treat drivers like they’re expendable,” Ms. Desai said. “Something needs to give, and it can’t continue to be drivers and drivers’ families.”

The city’s taxi industry is a mix-up of car services. App-based vehicles lead with an estimated 70,000 cars, which compete with more than 32,000 black cars and livery cars, 13,500 yellow taxis and 4,200 green taxis, according to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.

With the advent of ride-sharing mobile applications, many medallion taxi drivers say they are in debt. Aileen Perilla/NYT Institute

Hundreds of drivers who are buried in debt and struggling to make ends meet because of the lack of income from cab rides have filed for bankruptcy or sold their homes, Ms. Desai said.

Bhupinder Singh, 53, drove taxis well before he purchased a medallion for $300,000 in 2003. And it was worth every penny at a time where he could make upwards of $8,000 a month. Now, he makes $6,000 a month.

A resident of Bellerose, Queens, Mr. Singh said he pays $3,500 a month to the Melrose Credit Union in an effort to pay off the $550,000 principal balance he owes. The union used to charge him 4 percent interest; now it is 6 percent. Only $500 goes to his principal and the rest is to service the interest, he said.

Everybody is working hard, and it is “so difficult to make a living,” Mr. Singh said. Drivers like him are stressed because “credit union give us very hard time.”

It is stress that he says is taxing his mental health. The taxi commission has noted the challenges and depression plaguing the industry and established a drivers’ protection unit for financial counseling.

“While the reasons for suicide are complex and cannot be explained in generalities, the mounting financial pressures medallion owners are facing is real and devastating,” the head of the commission, Meera Joshi, said in an emailed statement.

Melrose Credit Union, one of the largest issuers of medallions, did not respond to a request for comment about recent taxi suicides.

Uber learned about the death of Mr. Chow recently, and a spokeswoman said the city should enact policy.

“Drivers who own individual medallions have been left behind by change and exploited by lenders, and we support action that eases their financial burden,”Alix Anfang, a communications manager at Uber, wrote in an email.

Mr. Chow’s brother, Richard Chow, attended the rally Tuesday, holding up a placard with the five names of the taxi drivers who committed suicide, including his brother. Standing on a wooden makeshift stage on Broadway, he was on the brink of tears.

“Kenny was a loving person,” he said. “And his memories will remain with us.”