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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Agreement sends taxi drivers back to airport

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Antonio Tabaldo was one of the drivers staying away from the Ampco taxi lot near Honolulu International Airport. The three-day work stoppage ended yesterday afternoon, and drivers returned to work.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Ampco taxi lot near the airport was almost empty yesterday as some of the taxi drivers who normally serve Honolulu International withheld their services, claiming unfair working conditions.

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Before yesterday's settlement, Robert Mingus explained the drivers' position during a strategy meeting at Ke'ehi Lagoon. The drivers had complained that Ampco, the dispatcher at the airport, was unfairly handing rides that produced the biggest fares to select cabs only.

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HONOLULU TAXI REGULATIONS

To receive a cab driver's certificate through the city's Motor Vehicle Licensing Division, drivers have to pass a written test and a separate location test in which an examiner asks to be taken to a particular destination using the most direct route. Drivers also must undergo a Honolulu Police Department criminal background check. Anyone with a violent felony record would be excluded, said city spokesman Bill Brennan.

The cost for the cab driver's certificate is $25 a year. Drivers must reapply annually but do not have to be retested, Brennan said.

Their cabs also require a special license that costs $50.50 a year, Brennan said. An optional decal to wait in line at designated taxi stands at shopping centers and other popular locations costs $120 a year and must be renewed.

Fares start at $2.80, with another 30 cents for each tenth of a mile.

Some taxi drivers, such as those who use limousines, also may charge customers different rates that don't rely on taxi meters. If so, they come under the jurisdiction of the state Public Utilities Commission.

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Airport taxi drivers returned to work yesterday afternoon, three days after complaining that they were being treated unfairly by the airport taxi dispatcher, Ampco System Parking.

"We achieved exactly what we wanted," said Abraham Martin, who organized what he said were 300 protesting taxi drivers. "Our voice has been heard. I guess I'm going back to work now."

Ampco officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The drivers resumed picking up passengers just before 5 p.m. after a two-hour meeting with representatives of the drivers, Ampco and the state Department of Transportation, said Scott Ishikawa, DOT spokesman.

The company and drivers agreed to a two-week period in which Ampco would conduct two random inspections per day of cabs to look at their cleanliness and ability to operate, Ishikawa said.

Instead of being sent home immediately, drivers who fail the inspections can appeal to a new grievance committee during the two-week period, Ishikawa said.

Martin, however, said "cab drivers will police themselves and set up a grievance committee. We take care of our own inspections."

Drivers also had complained that dispatchers were referring longer, more lucrative rides to select drivers. During the meeting, the company agreed that dispatchers will not use cell phones and will have to rely on radios to communicate with the airport taxi stations, Ishikawa said.

"It'll be more difficult to call somebody on the outside for the more choice assignments," said Ishikawa.

A DIFFICULT JOB

The meeting capped a three-day work stoppage that highlighted an industry that relies on independent contractors who earn slim returns.

Several dozen drivers yesterday said their business is filled with immigrants mostly from Vietnam and the Philippines who arrived in America from places like Ho Chi Minh City and northern Luzon.

To start life anew as Honolulu taxi drivers, they bought aging luxury cars with 100,000 miles or more on the odometers.

The economics of their profession don't always make sound financial sense.

Drivers pay a $4 fee every time they get in line at Honolulu airport usually heading into Waikiki, a ride that brings $25 to $30. Because of long waits at the airport, they are only able to pick up four or five such fares per day.

When they're done each day after accounting for gas, oil changes, insurance, the $4 fee and other necessities to stay on the road several taxi drivers said they typically pocket about $80 for 12 to 14 hours of work.

"Nobody pays for our health insurance. Nobody provides us with our vehicles," said Robert Mingus, 63. "When the doctor bill comes, you have to pay it. But if the car breaks down, it's a huge loss and we can't make any money for the day."

So drivers got angry when they believed that Ampco dispatchers favored some drivers over others for the more lucrative, longer rides that generate bigger fares.

The frustrated taxi drivers could have avoided the whole problem by simply driving around places like Waikiki, hoping to get waved down by someone needing a ride.

But the airport is the most reliable source of customers, they said, even if it means paying $4 per trip and waiting in line for hours.

"Other places, too many cabs," said Hai Nguyen, 54.

SURPRISING SOLIDARITY

Yesterday morning, more than 50 drivers gathered for a strategy meeting at Ke'ehi Lagoon Park. Several said they were surprised by the show of solidarity among drivers who work for themselves as independent contractors and have little in common other than their aging vehicles.

"We're taken advantage of because we have no representation," Mingus said. "We have no union. We have no spokesperson."

Antonio Tabaldo, 61, takes care of his two grandchildren during the day, then drives his 1991 Cadillac Fleetwood with 231,000 miles on it into the night.

"Most of us are family men," Tabaldo said. "Those who think we are troublemakers, we are not. All we want to do is make a living. This is our bread and butter."

They certainly can't count on tips.

Many passengers don't tip at all. Others are stingy tippers.

"You take them into Waikiki and the meter is $28-plus or something like that," Ho Ly said. "They'll give you $30 and say, 'Keep the change.' "

There certainly are easier jobs with fewer headaches in Hawai'i, where the statewide unemployment rate is lowest in the country.

But being 62, Ly knows he can't handle too much physical labor.

And when it comes to low-paying, retail jobs that are hard to fill with employees these days, Ly said, "My language not so good."

"I don't want welfare. I don't want food stamps," Ly said. "God gave me health, so I have to work. But it's hard when get little bit pay."

So Ly drives his taxi from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. Every day, he pays about $25 to fill up his tank.

At night, Ly goes home to a two-bedroom apartment in Kalihi, where he lives with a roommate and splits the $1,000 monthly rent.

Last year, Ly invested $4,000 he could ill afford on a new cab, which was a 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood that now has 180,000 miles on it.

To keep the windshield wipers attached to the wiper arms, Ly attached mismatched plastic zip ties.

He spends his days paying $4 to wait in line at the airport and hope to get a fare into Waikiki.

Instead, he sometimes gets a less-costly ride downtown. Or worse, the long wait will result only in a short trip to someplace like Kalihi that generates only a $10 fare.

(Cab drivers who make shorter runs pay only $2 to wait in line again).

THE TURTLE BAY DREAM

If he could wish for a dream fare, Ly and several other drivers said it would be to take a customer to the Turtle Bay Resort on O'ahu's North Shore where the meter runs up to $120.

The long drive would mean spending another hour to get back to the airport without a paying customer. But the extra cash would help cover expenses, which always seem to be rising.

"You're lucky if you even get one trip like that in a year," Tabaldo said, as others nodded their heads in agreement.

"I haven't had a trip to Turtle Bay in five, six years," said Cuong Nguyen, 46.

Last year, Nguyen estimated, he earned $30,000 through his 1998 Ford Crown Victoria with 210,000 miles. The Crown Vic also needed a new set of tires that set Nguyen back $400.

To raise their three children, ages 13 through 22, Nguyen sidelines as an insurance agent. His wife augments her social-worker salary by buying and selling real estate.

But they've come to rely on the long days that Nguyen spends driving his taxi to prop up the family's finances.

"We sacrifice," Nguyen said. "We do the best we can."

HONOLULU TAXI REGULATIONS

To receive a cab driver's certificate through the city's Motor Vehicle Licensing Division, drivers have to pass a written test and a separate location test in which an examiner asks to be taken to a particular destination using the most direct route. Drivers also must undergo a Honolulu Police Department criminal background check. Anyone with a violent felony record would be excluded, said city spokes-man Bill Brennan.

The cost for the cab driver's certificate is $25 a year. Drivers must reapply annually but do not have to be retested, Brennan said.

Their cabs also require a special license that costs $50.50 a year, Brennan said. An optional decal to wait in line at designated taxi stands at shopping centers and other popular locations costs $120 a year and must be renewed.

Fares start at $2.80, with another 30 cents for each tenth of a mile.

Some taxi drivers, such as those who use limousines, also may charge customers different rates that don't rely on taxi meters. If so, they come under the jurisdiction of the state Public Utilities Commission.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.