For the sixth time since November, a financially struggling cab driver has taken his own life in New York—the latest in a string of driver suicides spurred by what advocates say is a political failure to regulate the thousands of new for-hire vehicles arriving each month on the city's streets.
On Friday, Abdul Saleh, a 59-year-old Yemeni immigrant who'd driven a yellow cab for three decades, was found dead in a rented Brooklyn room. According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a nonprofit group that represents drivers, a significant drop-off in ridership caused by the boom in competition had left Saleh unable to make weekly payments on his medallion, which he leased with a driving partner. After working a full week, he was still $300 short on his last medallion payment, and took home no profit for himself, the group said.
"Abdul Saleh took his life because he saw no end to the burden of poverty," TWA Director Bhairavi Desai said in a statement. "He was exhausted by the cruelty of ending each 12-hour workday with less in his pocket than the day before. Many aging drivers no longer see retirement in sight and can't imagine continuing to work such a grueling job until their last day on earth."
“They were New Yorkers and we should never forget them.” @RepEspaillat speaks at an NYC Taxi Workers press conference following the suicide of cab driver Abdul Saleh. This is the 6th cabby suicide since November. pic.twitter.com/bqmOVSyfFY
— Rebecca Liebson (@RebeccaLiebson) June 18, 2018
“I think she’s a nice lady. But this is a crisis where six men have taken their lives” Espaillat says https://t.co/cEVhlXNlUB
— Noah Manskar (@noahmanskar) June 18, 2018
On Monday, drivers and supportive politicians rallied outside City Hall to call on the Taxi and Limousine Commission and City Council to take action on a host of measures aimed at ameliorating the drivers' crisis. Those demands include instituting a cap on the number of for-hire vehicles allowed on the city's streets, establishing the regulated taxi meter as a minimum rate of fare for app-based services, and passing equal labor laws for drivers across all sectors.
As they've done at more than half-a-dozen rallies this year, drivers held signs commemorating the lives of other suicide victims, while blaming lawmakers for the deaths of their "brothers." Most recently, the body of Yu Mein Kenny Chow, a yellow cab driver who owed $700,000 on his medallion, was found in the East River. In the six months prior, owner-driver Nicanor Ochisor, livery driver Danilo Corporan Castillo, livery driver Alfredo Perez, and black car driver Douglas Schifter committed suicide. It's impossible to know the many factors that led to their deaths, but the TWA maintains that the current state of the industry is to blame. Schifter shot himself outside City Hall, leaving behind a lengthy Facebook note in which he laid the blame for his financial woes on "stupid greedy uncaring politicians."
U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat was also on hand for Monday's rally, where he called on TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi to step down because of the suicides. Meanwhile, Ruben Diaz Sr., the chair of the newly-formed City Council Committee on For-Hire Vehicles, is reportedly waiting on the green light from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to vote on a package of bills that would bring tighter regulation to the app-based companies. That legislation would create restrictions on the companies' bases, a prohibition on drivers working for more than one app-based service, and a $2,000 yearly license fee for all app-based vehicles. (Johnson did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Gothamist).
Another long-stalled bill would place a one-year cap on for-hire vehicle licenses—something Mayor Bill de Blasio famously supported three years ago, before abruptly changing his mind. But the recent suicides and reports of widespread financial devastation may be forcing the mayor to switch his position once again. On a recent Brian Lehrer appearance, de Blasio conceded that the situation had worsened, adding that "caps are the kind of thing we need to talk about again."
Until such action is taken, members of the Taxi Workers Alliance have vowed to protest outside City Hall daily. "We will not allow the status quo of callousness toward struggling drivers to continue for one more day," Desair said. "Suicide can't be the only way that desperate poor people find mercy."
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.