Taxi drivers duel with owners on work conditions and Uber

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Taxicab drivers and owners testified on Friday at a contentious hearing before a Montgomery County Council committee about work conditions, salaries, fees, and the impact of Uber and Lyft.

Some taxi drivers told lawmakers that Barwood Taxi owner Lee Barnes mistreats them, and that conditions need to change or else they’ll leave for Uber.

“When you tell a driver, ‘I don’t care about you.  If you don’t like it, drop the keys and leave.’  That is nonsense.  Uber is great.  Uber is there for drivers,” says Peter Ibik, President of the Montgomery County Professionals Drivers Union.

He also drives a taxi for Barwood Taxi.

“Lee Barnes never wants to bow down to being wrong.  He’s always right.  Nobody is perfect.  All you have to do is listen to your workers.  We are not getting any respect from him,” says Ibik.

But other Barwood Taxi drivers testified against the complaints about conditions, salaries and fees.

“I’ve been working with Barwood for eight years.  If you are business owner, of course you listen to the employees.  I wouldn’t be here for this long if I didn’t like working for Mr. Barnes,” says driver Jay Islam.

Ibik and other drivers complained to the County Council about rates for leasing taxis and getting special licenses.  At Barwood, lease rates are $643.80 per week or $33,477.60 per year.  Drivers also complain that Barwood jacks up the price to purchase a license versus getting one on their own.

Committee Chairman Roger Berliner and other members urged Acting Department of Transportation Director Al Roshdieh to consider caps on lease rates.

Drivers also complained that Barwood coerced them into signing five-year contracts to get new equipment installed in their leased vehicles, locking them into a deal that leaves them with few options.  Lawmakers recommended that long-term contracts be stopped.

“Some are six-month contracts, some are 36-month contracts, some are 60 months.  There is a variety of contracts with different benefits like free oil changes.  I think there should be whatever contract the companies want,” counter Barnes.

The loudest moments from the vocal crowd came when drivers testifying for the owners claimed that they could earn more than $100,000 per year.

“If you make $250 a day, pay Barwood $110 in fees, spend $30 in gas, then every day you can put $100 in your pocket,” testified Barwood driver Michael Payson, which caused an eruption of disagreement from the drivers in the audience.

“Six days a week, you get $600.  Work Sunday, you can get $200.  So $800 a week, which is not so bad,” he added, drawing some boos.

Regency Taxi President David Mohebbi says drivers could earn $250-$300 per day, if they work a 12-hour day and cover both rush hours.

“To counter the impression that the County taxi drivers are earning less than the minimum wage, Barwood has provided data showing that a number of its drivers earned $100,000.00 in gross income in 2014,” writes Mohebbi, President of the Coalition for a Competitive Taxicab Industry.

Ibik counters most drivers are barely breaking even with all the fees, including a 7.9 percent fee for each credit card transaction.  Lawmakers want to cap those fees at five percent.

Owners argued to lawmakers that the real issue is Uber and Lyft.  They argued that unchecked, their companies will go under and then drivers will have a bigger problem.

“This is an example of a patient who is sick, but doesn’t know where the pain is coming from or what causes the pain.  Drivers are hard-working people.  They don’t realize the issue is not Barwood or Regency.  It’s Uber, who came in from nowhere, surprised all of us, and is taking all of our passengers because they have no regulations,” says Mohebbi.

“In two years, after Barwood and Regency are gone, the drivers will realize then the patient is dead.  The ship is sinking right now,” he adds.

Drivers disagree and consider Uber good competition for their services.

“We want to create an incentive for drivers to be driving for our taxicab companies, as opposed to Uber.  If our drivers make more money working for taxicab companies, then they will stay with our taxicab companies,” says Berliner.

His committee continues to review the bill and will vote on a final product next month.

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