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  • 23 Nov 2014

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Union Cab hits only a few bumps in road

Owner, drivers, rivals mostly optimistic at six-month mark


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Six months ago Kedir Wako started Union Cab despite naysayers who said their wasnt enough business to support new cabs in Portland. Wakso says today, his drivers are making more money than many drivers at long-established cab companies.Kedir Wako didn’t grow up in the United States and he’s not intimately familiar with American cooking, but he’s pretty certain that his detractors were wrong six months ago. Pies can grow, he says.

Six months ago, Wako led a group of disenchanted taxi drivers who won city approval to start their own company, Union Cab. That meant 50 new cabs would be cruising Portland’s streets looking for fares, along with 28 additional cabs permitted to companies that already were operating. This came against the backdrop of a city study that revealed many cab drivers were working 14 days and making less than minimum wage.

Officials at the long-time cab companies, as well as many of their drivers, complained that putting more cabs on the street would make it even harder for drivers to earn a living wage — the pie of available fares would just get cut into smaller pieces.

But six months later, Wako says that hasn’t been the case. His drivers are making more money than they did working for other cab companies and working shorter hours.

“I was right, they were wrong,” Wako says. “There’s more business to go around.”

In fact, Wako says some of his drivers — all of whom are immigrants from Africa — now making more money and with better working conditions, don’t want to work the long hours he’d like them to. He says most are making more than $800 a week.

Wako needs his 50 cabs out on the street as much as possible so Union Cab can build its brand and reputation. But many of his drivers don’t want to work 14-hour shifts.

“Now we have to push them to work,” Wako says.

Wako’s solution will roll out this week. Union Cab is hiring new drivers so taxis can be double-shifted and operate nearly 24 hours a day.

Ironically, those 14-hour shifts are something the city has hoped to curtail as part of its initiative to improve working conditions for cab drivers, says Kathleen Butler, who oversees taxis as regulatory division manager for the Portland Revenue Bureau. Butler says she’s heard mostly positive reports about Union Cab, so far.

Prior to this year, 1998 was the last year Portland issued new taxi permits, and that caused problems. Butler says people reported streets that were clogged with drivers just cruising around, and fights between drivers desperate for fares.

“It seemed to have a detrimental effect on the street at that time, but it thankfully hasn’t happened this time,” Butler says. In fact, Butler says city travel officials recently requested her bureau permit more taxis because downtown business travelers are complaining they can’t find cabs when they want them. And Butler says the city will consider permitting more cabs.

Radio Cab drivers haven’t suffered because of Union’s permits. In fact, Radio Cab has seen an increase in business during the past six months, says Steve Entler, a Radio Cab driver and cab driver representative to the city’s Private for Hire Transportation Board.

Stephen Kafoury, an attorney who represents Broadway Cab, says he’s heard business is up.

“I think the business is growing and I think the reason business is growing is the economy is better,” Kafoury says.

No follow-up after debut

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Union Cab dispatcher David Johnson talks on the companys CB during a morning shift. Union Cab will be adding drivers this week so it can run its taxis 24 hours a day.Kafoury faults the city for giving Union its permits without following up as promised. “This was done as an experiment, and the only way an experiment has any value is if you measure the results,” he says.

The dispatch systems used by cab companies are computerized so data on driver fares is readily available, Kafoury says. He’d like the city to determine if, in fact, more people are taking cabs and more calls for cabs are

being made.

“It would be very, very simple to check out,” he says.

Brenda Hiatt, another driver representative to the Private for Hire board, says she has talked to a variety of drivers and “I’ve gotten no feedback that (Union Cab) is hurting anything.”

Hiatt, too, would like to see more action from the city. When Union received its permits, city officials promised to enact and enforce standards so that all taxi drivers would see improved conditions, and that drivers who delivered poor service and cab companies that mistreated drivers would suffer consequences. That hasn’t happened, Hiatt says.

“The wheels are turning so slow it’s unbelievable,” Hiatt says of attempts to adopt taxi standards. “This board meets every other month to talk about the same thing, which is nothing. We’re not getting anywhere.”

Hiatt and Wako agree that the illegal practice of cab drivers paying bribes to downtown hotel valets to secure fares going to the airport has worsened. Wako says he has told his drivers if he finds they are paying off doormen it will cost them, but his drivers are complaining that Union’s policy handicaps them.

Hiatt also says that the problem of unpermitted cabs picking up customers in Portland, especially late at night in the Old Town Entertainment District, has gotten out of hand. City ordinances give police the discretion to cite and even impound illegal taxis.

“I can’t see where there is any enforcement going on at all. It’s kind of a mystery,” says Radio Cab’s Entler.

City vows to set standards

Butler preaches patience. She says personnel issues at her bureau have delayed enacting performance standards for taxi companies, but that the standards and enforcement are coming. “That is our focus for the next six months,” she says.

At the top of the list, Butler says, are standards requiring taxi companies to provide insurance for drivers. Near the top are standards to ensure that when customers call for taxis their wait times are short, and that drivers don’t resist picking up fares in neighborhoods far from downtown. Butler says it isn’t easy to measure driver satisfaction, but in six months she will be able to report to the City Council how well each cab company is performing.

As for the illegal taxis, Butler says the city is still working through legal issues that will govern how and when they can be impounded, but that she expects a clear policy for police within weeks. She says most of the taxis operating illegally in Portland, once cited, have paid fines. But a small number of repeat offenders keep getting fines, which they don’t pay, and keep showing up to pick up fares.

“We’re actively working on it, and the results will be seen,” Butler says.

Most of those performance standards that Butler hopes to enact are already in place at driver-owned Union Cab, Wako says. Historically, a common complaint among drivers is that their kitty payments are too high. The kitty is the weekly payment drivers must make to the companies in return for services such as dispatch sending them out on calls. Most cab companies require a kitty payment of around $500 a week.

Union started out requiring a $300 a week kitty payment from its drivers. Wako says the kitty now is $350 a week. And he proudly lists the services his drivers get for that $350. All, he says, are covered by occupational insurance similar to workers compensation so that if they get hurt on the job they are paid $200 a week until they return. And their medical expenses up to $100,000 are

covered.

Wako says other cab companies could provide the same to their drivers for lower kitty payments, if they wanted to.

“It’s enough,” he says of the $350 kitty. “They (other cab companies) are greedy. They want to make more money. We don’t want to make more money. We want the drivers to make a better living.”

Road not completely smooth

Not that the first six months haven’t presented Wako and his drivers with a few obstacles. One week shortly after Union cabs began operating, 12 Union drivers found nails driven into their cars’ tires, and the nails were all identical, according to Wako. Police never found the culprit, but the sabotage stopped, Wako says.

There also have been issues with some Union drivers refusing to take customers who want to go only a short distance from the airport. After waiting in the cab line at the airport, Wako explains, drivers hope to get a fare downtown or farther, not half a mile to an airport hotel. Wako says he gave a two-week suspension from airport pickups to one of his drivers who tried to pick and choose his airport customers.

City officials in the past have said they hope to encourage cab drivers to work the city’s neighborhoods more and spend less time waiting in line, sometimes for hours, at the airport. Wako says he’s seeing Union’s drivers spend more time than he expected at the airport as well. That’s still the most dependable way for drivers to get fares, he says, but he hopes as Union Cab gets more established the company will receive more dispatch calls to neighborhoods, so drivers won’t have to depend on the airport as much.

Meanwhile, Wako seems to be picking up marketing skills fairly quickly. The phone number for Union Cab pickups was recently changed to 503-222-2222. Easier to remember, Wako says, and expensive — he had to pay dearly for the number, but he thinks it will be worth it.