With the shadow of nine suicides hanging over the taxi industry, the Independent Drivers Guild announced a mental-health program for New York’s for-hire drivers May 7.
Due to the “highly financially insecure nature of this job over the last handful of years, we’ve seen mental health go down,” IDG Executive Director Brendan Sexton told LaborPress. The program will offer immediate counseling services to drivers facing a crisis, along with social workers and case managers to help them fight eviction or get food stamps—to “try to avert when we can, get involved when we have to,” says Sexton.
On a deeper level, it will try to create a support system for drivers, integrating organizing with social work and therapy, says IDG education director Erik Forman. It already holds weekly discussion groups, led by a social worker, on subjects such as immigrant life and family relations, along with classes in English, financial literacy, and managing stress. The discussions are now in English, but the union also plans to hold them in Bengali, Mandarin, Spanish, and Urdu. The Black Car Fund, the for-hire vehicle industry’s workers’ compensation fund, is covering the costs.
“We in city government have failed this community of hardworking people just trying to keep up,” city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams toldreporters at the launch, in a black-cab garage in Sunnyside with the flags of almost 40 nations hanging on the wall. Also important, he added, is to “destigmatize mental-health care.”
“We’re a labor organization. We understand that the roots of this crisis are economic,” Forman says. “We’re not psychologizing social problems.” But in order to take collective action, he explains, “drivers need to be well enough to fight.” And unlike workers at Starbucks, where he previously tried to organize a union, drivers, who work long shifts alone, are isolated and don’t have the social networks that coworkers normally have.
The weekly discussions give drivers an opportunity “to come together and express your feelings,” says Ashraf Azim, a Pakistani immigrant and father of four who has been driving for app-based cab companies for three years.
In an industry where drivers work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with no time for family or friends, they provide a source of community. Events where drivers and their families share meals from their home countries are “food therapy,” he says.
“One thing I learned was deep breaths,” he adds of the stress-management lessons.
The job’s biggest stressor is its precarious, meager wages and grueling hours, but drivers, who are overwhelmingly immigrants, have to cope with a lot more, says counselor Deborah Ho. They have to adjust to life in a new country where they’ve been uprooted from their old support network, and learn English well enough to understand their customers.
“People are very overwhelmed,” she says. But often, “the financial burden makes them want to push on.”
Azim echoes that sentiment. “I keep looking at my family,” he says. If he doesn’t provide for them, he asks, who will put his two youngest children through college? “You can’t give up in spite of all of this,” he answers.
“Even though we are for technology, we are for innovation, we are at a time when no one knows who is responsible for what,” City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez said. “We don’t want to be at another press conference when a driver commits suicide.”