NEW YORK, N.Y.—New York taxi drivers fear that a man missing for 11 days may have been the fifth cabbie to commit suicide in the last six months.
Kenny Chow, 56, has not been seen since May 11, when he parked his cab on the corner of East 86th Street and East End Avenue. The still-photo camera in it showed he’d dropped off a fare there about 5:30 p.m., his older brother Richard Chow told a May 22 rally in Carl Schurz Park, across the street from where the cab was found.
“We know that Brother Kenny was very depressed from the financial stress,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, told the about 30 drivers gathered on the stone steps. “We want the city of New York to understand that there is a human cost when you don’t protect the workers.”
“He’s a good husband, working very hard, working seven days a week,” Richard Chow, who is also a taxi driver, said. Unlike most owner-operators, he did not lease out his cab. Instead, he drove it himself about 14 hours a day.
Kenny Chow, born Yu Mein Chow to an ethnic Chinese family in what is now Myanmar, immigrated to the U.S. in 1987, his brother said. He worked in a jewelry shop until it closed during the 2008 recession, according to NYTWA. He began driving a cab, and bought the medallion for $700,000 in 2011.
Chow still owes about $400,000 after refinancing the loan to buy a new cab, Richard said. He had to pay about $3,500 a month for the mortgage on the medallion; including gas, insurance, and maintenance, he had to bring in almost $5,000 a month to break even. His wife was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer—metastasized to other parts of the body—last October. He was also one of the owner-drivers who recently received letters from their loan company, the Melrose Credit Union, demanding that they pay the full amount they owed on the medallion immediately.
The letters looked like legal documents, Desai told the crowd, but had not been filed with the courts. “This is a shakedown,” she said.
Richard Chow said he had last spoken to his brother on May 10, a brief phone conversation in which Kenny said things were good. Drivers were canvassing the Yorkville neighborhood, taping “MISSING” flyers to lampposts.
Four taxi-industry drivers have killed themselves since December: Bronx livery drivers Danilo Corporan Castillo and Alfredo Perez, black-car driver Douglas Schifter, and yellow-cab owner-driver Nicanor Ochisor. All four were financially strapped by the precipitous decline in drivers’ incomes over the last five years, since app-based services doubled the numbers of cabs on New York City streets.
“The circumstances that are leading to depression and desperation need to be changed,” Desai said. Drivers, especially owners paying off medallions, fear that everything they’ve worked for “is being washed away,” she added, but “things can still be fixed.”
The circumstances that are leading to depression and desperation need to be changed, Desai said. Drivers, especially owners paying off medallions, fear that everything they’ve worked for is being washed away, she added, but things can still be fixed.
NYTWA is calling for a cap on the number of for-hire vehicle licenses the city issues. Before the arrival of app-based services, Desai said, the city had 60,000 yellow, black, and livery cabs; now, Uber and Lyft have close to 100,000. That increases traffic as well as the competition for fares, and drivers make less money sitting in traffic jams.
NYTWA also wants the city to set the yellow-cab fare as the minimum for all for-hire vehicles, to prevent undercutting, and to reduce the number of vehicles licensed by restricting renewals. The Independent Drivers Guild, an International Association of Machinists affiliate that advocates for app-based drivers in the city, opposes a cap on for-hire vehicles, but has been campaigning for a minimum wage pegged to a percentage of the fare.
Anger bubbled over among the drivers on the park steps. “Stop giving away stupid free licenses,” shouted Nicolae Hent, a Romanian immigrant who was a close friend of Ochisor. Cab owners pay for their medallions, he said, so “why should Uber and Lyft and Juno get it for free?”
“All of us are going through financial hardship,” called out Victor Salazar.
“Thank God I only owe $320,000 on the medallion,” Salazar told LaborPress after the rally. Now 55, he grew up in Quito, Ecuador, and remembers that whenever he saw a yellow cab on TV or in a movie, he thought “New York.” He emigrated to the U.S. after finishing high school, began driving a cab in 1994, and bought a medallion in 2003. “I have purchased my profession,” he says.
He now drives only three days a week because of health problems. “We taxi drivers are not just a machine. We are human beings,” he says. “We want action now.”