by Tom Grant
Barb Kabrick is the Norma Rae of the Spokane taxi business. On the outside, she's a grandmother with curly hair and a disarming smile. On the inside, she's as steely as Jimmy Hoffa.
When she voiced her concerns about safety procedures, she lost her job.
Of course, she’d prefer not to walk in Hoffa’s concrete overshoes.
But when you’re trying to put together a union, things can get ugly. She’s the president of Spokane Cab Drivers Association, a group of 17 cabbies, most of whom fear that if they admit they belong they’ll be fired. Kabrick is fighting to get them benefits, like breaks and unemployment.
This spring, shortly after she won her own unemployment claim in Superior Court, someone bought a couple bags of fish heads and tossed them in her front yard. Kabrick wasn’t worried at first. But then one of her cabbie friends offered his interpretation.
“The guy says, ‘Fish heads. That’s a mafia sign for swimming with the fishes,’” Kabric recalls. “‘You’re crazy if you don’t think you have people upset.’”
Kabrick went straight out to get a concealed weapons permit.
Kabrick became a cabbie on a dare in 1997. A friend told her how difficult and dangerous it was. He said Kabrick couldn’t handle the 12-hour days and constant stress. She took it as personal challenge. And she loved it.
“It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had. I never had a single day when I woke up and went, ‘Oh, no. I have to go to work today,’” she says. She liked meeting new people. She liked the variety.
At first, she didn’t even mind The Contract.
You see, cabbies aren’t really hired by the cab companies. They’re independent contractors. It’s a rather common business arrangement in some fields. Dancers at Déjà Vu are independent contractors. Hairdressers are often independent contractors. Realtors are independent contractors.
At the cab companies, drivers would sign a contract with the management. The company would agree to provide dispatching services and a car. The driver would agree to pay the company a fee. Drivers who owned their own cabs would pay a smaller fee for dispatching only.
Kabrick says the price of The Contract for a car and dispatching at her company, Spokane Cab, was $75 per 12-hour shift. A driver could average $150 a day in fares by working hard, out of which they paid their own gas and other expenses. A few drivers couldn’t make enough to cover their fee. They didn’t last long.
The best driver Kabrick knew took in $36,000 one year. After counting his expenses, he paid taxes on $11,000. Other drivers say they take home as little as $25 per day, and $50 was a good day. That’s between $6,500 and $13,000 per year, working 52 weeks of 12 hour days. The poverty level for a family of one is about $9,000.
Sure, the job had its dangers. One woman pulled a knife on Kabrick. One guy tried to rob her. Another slit his wrist in the cab, which Kabrick describes as “pretty icky.” One time, after picking up a particularly frightening fare, she ran a red light in front of a cop in order to get pulled over. The guys in her cab were found to be carrying several thousand of dollars worth of crack.
But Kabrick found that cabs in Spokane had dangers she didn’t anticipate. “Safety,” Kabrick says, “none of the cab companies have taken it seriously.”
One documented case involved one company running a cab that had its passenger door held on with duct tape. A city official says the problem came to the city’s attention only because the driver was driving too fast and swearing at a customer. The customer complained. Police were dispatched to take the cab off the road. Officials say that not only was the door taped on, the brakes on the cab were shot, too.
Kabrick says problems are widespread. She notes one cab that had been wrecked, so its door wouldn’t latch, yet she says that cab remained on the road for months, even running to the airport. Spokane Cab’s president, Larry Loncon, says flatly: “That’s not true.” Indeed, Alex Schmall, who monitors taxis for the City of Spokane, says Spokane Cab has more cabs pass inspection on the first try that any other company.
But safety inspections are required only once per year. Keith Bundy, safety inspector with the City of Spokane’s Fleet Services, says, “Our main concern is that because we only see them once a year, we have no control. Some cabs put on 150,000 miles year. So if a cab is running metal to metal on the brakes, we’re unaware of that.”
Kabrick says she has been asked to drive a car with no dash lights, so she couldn’t tell how fast it was going. She says some cars had transmission indicators that wouldn’t identify which gear they were in. Another car, she says, developed an exhaust problem that pushed a driver into the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning.
“This is the last of the wild, wild west,” says Jim Szekely, director of the International Taxi Drivers Safety Council in Saratoga Springs, NY. Szekely works with drivers around the world on issues of safety and maintains a website, www.taxi-l.org. He’s brash. He thinks Spokane faces serious issues of safety for its taxi drivers and their passengers.
“There’s very little regulation and what there is has never been enforced,” he says. “Shame on the cab owners in this town allowing the workers to be so vulnerable when there are so many things that could be done to promote a safer working environment.”
Szekely was a taxi driver 17 years ago. A passenger cut his throat during a robbery. He lived, but now he’s deeply committed to protecting other drivers. And he thinks that will protect passengers, too.
“A safer working environment will attract higher caliber of worker. Most workers are not inclined to get into the most dangerous occupation in America without more safety protection,” Szekely says.
The City of Spokane’s regulation of taxicabs is primarily a licensing requirement designed to keep felons and drunks from driving for-hire. The city doesn’t regulate rates. Safety standards aren’t codified; they’re left up to the fleet services director. Kabrick says she has seen inspectors play fast and loose with the rules, such as once when they let her run without proper brake lights.
Gene Jakubczak, assistant director of the City of Spokane Fleet Services, says he believes most cabs are safe. Only two or three complaints are received each year. The cabs are inspected using a national guidebook, and 90 percent pass on the first try. But he can’t control cars once they leave his shop. And he can’t require that special safety devices be installed in cars.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends a variety of safety measures for cabs: global positioning systems (GPS), in-car surveillance camera, partitions or shields between driver and customer, silent “carjack alarms” and emergency “open mike switches.” None of those safety measures are required in Spokane cabs. Yet shields alone are known to reduce robberies and assaults on drivers by 93 percent.
Kabrick says that when voiced her concerns about safety procedures, she lost her job. Because she was worried about growing gang activity, Kabrick wrote a memo asking dispatchers to get a name, pickup address, phone number and destination address from each customer.
The manager of Spokane Cab, Larry Loncon, wrote her a letter saying: “It seems there has been an ongoing issue with you and the direction this company is going under my management.” Loncon terminated her contract. He asked that she return her meter and radio. He asked that she remove all her decals from her car, including her city license.
Until that point, Kabrick had thought she was an independent contractor. She had a partner in the car. Now Loncon was demanding, in writing, that her partner take over complete ownership and registration of the car, or else it couldn’t remain a Spokane Cab.
Loncon, however, characterizes Kabrick as a “disgruntled driver.” He said he doesn’t believe there’s any safety issue, but he declined to discuss any safety procedures that his company had in place.
Kabrick says all these problems become a significant public issue in one place: Spokane International Airport.
The airport is the face of Spokane to many travelers. If someone is coming to town looking for a job, or thinking about moving a business, the first place they see is the airport. And many times, the first person they deal with is a cabbie.
In the not-so-distant past, that was a problem. Todd Woodard, director of airport marketing, says, “We have records of police officers breaking up fights between taxi cab drivers fighting over customers.”
That’s why the airport now puts its taxi business out to bid. However, the only bidder in recent years has been Spokane Cab, the largest company in the city and the only one with enough cabs to meet the requirement of the contract.
The airport gets $25,000 from Spokane Cab, or 8% percent of the company’s airport revenue, whichever is larger. Spokane Cab gets the exclusive right to pick up customers at the airport. Last year, Spokane Cab reported nearly $500,000 in gross revenue from airport pickups and it paid the airport nearly $40,000.
Woodard says that since the contract went into effect, cab service at the airport has improved dramatically. They recently had six “mystery shoppers” take taxi rides to the airport. The mystery shopper said one cab was beat up and smelled bad, and another had a grumpy dispatcher. But scores were generally above average.
Kabrick, however, thinks the airport’s limited survey saw very little. She insists that there are still fights over fares between Spokane Cab drivers themselves, and between Spokane Cab drivers and shuttle drivers. As a former driver for Spokane Cab, Kabrick found customers were sometimes extremely upset with the way they were treated at the airport. She says customers may wait half an hour or more for a cab. . “Many times, I’d pick people up who’d been here for a convention and they’d say, ‘You’ve got a beautiful city but I hope we don’t come back because I can’t get a cab,’” she says.
She claims that Spokane Cab often runs short of its own vehicles, so it has to call other companies to come and make pickups. By her reading of the contract, it’s illegal for those other cab companies to step in for Spokane Cab.
Loncon, president of Spokane Cab, says he never calls cabs from other companies to serve the airport. “We’ll shut down the rest of the city and run everything to the airport,” he says.
The airport says it knows of only one instance where Spokane Cab called another company to make an airport pickup, and that was back in 1999.
However, Kabrick claims Spokane Cab has failed to live up to its contractual agreement with the airport. For instance, the drivers keep a “blue sheet” of runs from the airport. Fees to the airport are based on that report, and drivers are expected to pay a flat fee to the company for every “blue sheet” trip. She says that when she was running fares from the airport, she was instructed that she didn’t have to use the blue sheet to record certain trips to hotels. Loncon says Kabrick is making that up.
Kabrick contends that most of the problems with Spokane taxis could be eliminated if one issue would be resolved: whether the drivers are truly independent contractors or whether they are employees. “They can’t have it both ways,” she says.
“As a driver, you sign a contract that takes away all your rights,” she says. That’s why drivers end up working 12-hour shifts, without the benefit of overtime. That’s why drivers don’t get medical benefits or unemployment pay or coffee breaks or even the protections of OSHA.
“I realized right away that we weren’t really independent contractors,” Kabrick says. “We didn’t have freedom to do anything we wanted to.” They couldn’t take personal cell phone calls from people asking for rides. They couldn’t refuse to take a fare without getting dropped to the end of the rotation. They couldn’t set their own hours.
Kabrick eventually purchased her own cab. On her day off, an acquaintance called her personally to have her drive someone to Lewiston. The company demanded a $50 dispatch fee, even though it had done no work to obtain the fare. “So I paid a dispatch fee while I was gone, even though it had nothing to do with Spokane Cab,” she says.
Jerry Flanigan, a former cab driver and dispatcher who now belongs to the Spokane Cab Drivers Association, says he rarely made minimum wage as a driver. If he wanted to do better, he had to pay extra. “In your lease, you pay for dispatch service,” he says, “but drivers that come in every morning with an envelope and give it to the dispatcher get favorable runs.”
Flanigan says his company also required him to give a one-dollar tip to any clerks at hotels, quick stops, or bars who would call them to make pickups. “It’s not an option,” he says. “If you don’t pay, you get sent back to pay it double.”
“You’ve got to grease the skids, which shouldn’t be,” says cabbie advocate Szekely. “And the driver starves to death.”
They say the companies also make special contracts that undermine a driver’s ability to make a living. For instance, Spokane Cab made a contractual arrangement with Spokane School District 81 to transport some children to school. The price of the ride was set by contract, not by the meter. Drivers were required to spend extra time on the trips, including walking the children into the school and waiting for someone to sign. By Kabrick’s calculation, after the drivers paid their lease money and expenses, it was costing them two cents an hour to do the work. Loncon says her assessment is incorrect.
Kabrick maintains that drivers didn’t have any choice about taking kids to school. Nor did they have any choice about offering flat rates, off the meter, for trips from the airport to certain hotels. The flat rates were generally (but not always) lower than it would cost if the meter were running, which reduced the drivers’ pay and tips.
“As a driver I don’t have the right to set a rate,” Flanigan says. He believes that if he’s truly an independent contractor, the company shouldn’t instruct him when to run the meter and when to run flat fares. And if all cabbies are truly independent contractors, then they should have an equal right to contract for services at the airport, he says. He wants the airport should contract with cabbies, not with their dispatching service. After all, shuttles pay $20 per month and 50-cents per trip for the right to pick up people at the airport. He asks: why can’t cabs do the same?
Kabrick has been warned by the airport not to pass out her literature there. It’s inflammatory stuff. One article she recently passed out talked about the decision of the Ft. Lauderdale’s airport to abandon its taxi franchise and allow equal access to all drivers. Another handout advises drivers about a state investigation into whether cabbies should be covered by Washington State’s workman’s compensation program.
The airport says it has rules against soliciting passengers. Kabrick says she’s not soliciting passengers, she’s soliciting taxi drivers, primarily because some of them work exclusively on airport runs.
Kabrick is not the most popular person among cab drivers these days. Most of those who support her refuse to let anyone know they do. Others agree with her on some issues, but think she’s got a misplaced vendetta against Spokane Cab. Some view her as a dangerous radical – dangerous because she’s trying to change the status quo.
“Very few drivers will stand up,” she says. “They’re afraid they will lose their jobs. And they will, like I did.”
So far, her most serious blow to the taxi industry has been her legal battle to get unemployment insurance. When the company suddenly terminated her contract, she discovered that she couldn’t just continue on with her work.
“It was my contention that, although Spokane Cab’s “records” showed me to be an independent contractor, I was in fact an employee,” Kabrick wrote in one of her handouts for taxi drivers. “Even though I owned my own car, I was not my own boss. I was at all times under the control and direction of Spokane Cab.”
So she filed for unemployment. She lost the first round at unemployment. She lost the second round, an appeal within the employment department. Then she and her attorney, Thomas Doran, decided to take her case to Superior Court and Judge Michael Donohue.
Spokane Cab and the Washington State Attorney General argued that Kabrick was her own boss. They said she could work when she wanted and take the calls she wanted. They said she was free to take independent calls on her cell phone, too.
But Kabrick argued that she was required to work at certain hours and fined if she was late or missed a day. She argued that she was penalized if she refused to take calls. She said she was not allowed to drive her cab without checking in with the company.
Judge Donohue sided with Kabrick. “Petitioner Barbara Kabrick was an employee of Spo-Cab, Inc. She was not an independent contractor,” the order reads. Spokane Cab is appealing the decision.
Shortly after the ruling, the fish heads landed in Kabrick’s yard.
She admits she’s afraid. “I’m afraid my commitment to get justice and fair treatment and basic legal rights for the cabdrivers has put my family in harm’s way,” she wrote in an email. But she won’t give up.
Jim Szekely is spending a month in Spokane, not only to help her organize but also to help her protect herself.
“Most companies have goons they rely on,” he says. “Companies have a lot to lose here, so it’s not unreasonable to think they will use intimidation and fear to get what they want.”
But Kabrick has fire that won’t be doused by fear.
“I cannot watch these guys get walked on and beaten down any longer,” she writes. “I’m handing out info to educate the drivers and the owners act like we’re back in the old South and I’m teaching the slaves to read. I’d like to see better service at the airport, more professional drivers, and safer, cleaner cars. I’d like to see drivers who are not afraid to file workman’s comp claims when they are injured on the job. I’d like to see the plantations burned down and the slaves freed.”
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