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Mean Streets

Mean Streets

Abdi Dhuubow sits in his bright-orange cab, idling in a lot just off Speer Boulevard, waiting for his first fare of the night. As the dashboard clock ticks past 6 p.m., he sips from a mug filled with Somali chai and says he's optimistic that this Friday will be busy. According to a Visit Denver reference card tucked into his cab's sun visor, the American Society of Nephrology is in Denver for the weekend, which means 14,000 kidney-disease experts will be out on the town.

Sure enough, the dashboard computer soon bleeps. While it's not one of the visiting nephrologists, somebody has called Union Taxi Cooperative, the company Dhuubow works for, from a bar near the State Capitol. He lucks out with the couple waiting there. Not only are they heading to the Gothic Theatre — a long, well-paying ride down Broadway — but they are employed at a downtown bar. Since they work for tips themselves, service-industry folks usually pay handsomely.

The passengers are gregarious, so Dhuubow chats with them and laughs at their jokes. Over the seven years he's driven a cab, he's learned to quickly sense which riders want to talk and which prefer to be left alone. If customers ask about his thick accent, he'll tell them he grew up in Somalia. But he rarely goes into details: how he lost everything, including the store he owned, in 1996 when he escaped to Yemen in the midst of Somalia's ongoing civil war; how he scored a United States visa in 2001 but had to leave his five children in Yemen, where they wait for him to save up the $10,000 needed to bring them stateside. Instead, he'll just agree with his passengers when they say he should consider himself lucky to be in America.

And if his passengers ask what it's like to be a cab driver in Denver, he'll say he's happy with his job — or at least he's been happy since he stopped driving for Yellow Cab, the city's oldest cab company. But that's all he'll say. "It's too long a story," he'll explain.

*****

To operate a taxi in Denver, would-be drivers must not only land a job at one of the four cab companies approved by the Public Utilities Commission, but they must pass a Denver Department of Excise and Licenses test assessing their knowledge of local taxi laws and city streets. To prepare for the test, many newcomers seek out Ahmed Odawaay.

Odawaay has a small computer shop in the back room of a Somali store in Aurora. His shop serves as a makeshift classroom for taxicab tutorials, where he runs his charges through sample taxi tests administered amid a jumble of power cords and plastic-wrapped stacks of fur coats. "In America, everyone starts somewhere," explains Odawaay, who moved here from Mogadishu in 1997. "This is where I start."

He isn't the only one to get his start in this Aurora strip mall. Over the last few years, these storefronts have become a community center of sorts for the area's growing Somali community. Down the way, past a store that sells international cell phones and Arabic prayer books, a former Chinese restaurant is now a Somali eatery and pool parlor. At the far end of the strip, another cafe serves up gingery chai and sambusas — the Somali version of samosas — and broadcasts international soccer games.

Odawaay has watched this ad hoc village take root as more and more Somalis have moved to metro Denver — or, as he likes to put it, gotten stuck here. Some came to Colorado from other parts of the country for decent-paying warehouse positions at places like MCI or delivery gigs with the Rocky Mountain News, but those jobs don't exist anymore. Some came to work at the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley, but as claims of discrimination against Muslims there triggered an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, many of the immigrants headed south to try their luck in Denver.

According to Odawaay, they'll find few options beyond driving taxis. "I tell people, when you have a family to feed, when you have to have a job and you don't have language skills, you will end up driving a taxi," he says. "The taxi is something that is always available." That's why so many Denver taxi drivers are now immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, and why an assortment of yellow, purple, blood-orange and green cabs are always parked along this strip of stores.

"We didn't choose these taxi jobs," Odawaay explains. "People pushed us into them."

People like the human-resources officials at area hospitals and medical offices who've never responded to the nearly three dozen job applications Odawaay submitted after spending a year obtaining his medical-assistant certification. People like the twenty potential employers who called a friend who'd used his Americanized nickname on his resumé — but then lost interest, says Odawaay, when they heard the man's full Somali name.

 

Unable to find other work, Odawaay drove a taxi from 2002 to 2009 — first for Yellow Cab, then for Union. And now he helps an unending stream of newcomers learn to do likewise, even if he doesn't like the work. "It's not a job," he says. "People need to know that it is the worst thing you could ever do."

*****

Driving down Broadway on his way to depositing his customers at the Gothic, Dhuubow can't help but feel a shiver when he passes the intersection of Broadway and First Avenue. This is the place where all his troubles began, he says, a place he'll never forget.

One Saturday night in June 2005, a car blew through a red light at this intersection and crashed into the driver's side of his cab. Dhuubow woke up in the hospital with a separated shoulder, broken ribs and searing pain in his neck and back. Over the seven days he spent in the hospital, he left repeated messages for Yellow Cab's claims manager, Christine Doerr, asking her to file a health-insurance claim to cover his mounting medical bills and to freeze his taxi lease, so that he wouldn't owe the company money for his days off work. She didn't call back, he says.

After he was released, Dhuubow stopped by Yellow Cab's office and discovered that Doerr had never frozen his account — so he now owed the company more than a thousand dollars for the time he was unable to work. And even though the accident had been determined to be the other driver's fault and the weekly collision-insurance premiums Dhuubow had paid Yellow should've covered the full $8,000 he was owed for his totaled cab, Doerr handed him a check for only $3,000, saying that the difference was because of fines that she wouldn't explain.

Dhuubow had bought the car four months after he'd started working for Yellow Cab in 2003, when company vice president Ross Alexander told him the cab he was driving was too old for Yellow's fleet, Dhuubow remembers. Dhuubow had paid $1,600 for that beat-up 1999 Crown Victoria just four months earlier: He'd bought it from Alexander, he says, who'd told him that was the only way Dhuubow could get a job.

And soon after the accident, Dhuubow got another unpleasant surprise: a letter from Yellow Cab's health insurance company informing him that it would not be covering his medical bills, which eventually topped $40,000. Although Dhuubow had been paying weekly health-insurance premiums, Yellow had apparently never included his name on its list of covered drivers. Only after Dhuubow hired a lawyer did the cab company make sure his medical costs were covered.

By then, Dhuubow was no longer working for Yellow. He'd returned to work in August 2005 with a new cab he'd leased from a car dealership, as Alexander had instructed. But when he went to Alexander's office for approval, he was told he was fired — and if he didn't leave immediately, Alexander said, he would call Denver's other cab companies to ensure that Dhuubow never worked again in Colorado. And then, when Dhuubow asked for a letter explaining his termination, Alexander grabbed the driver, who was still recovering from his accident, and pushed him out of his office. As cabbies hurried over to help Dhuubow, Alexander told him: "You are just an African. If you don't like America, go back to your country."

That account is contained in a federal lawsuit filed against Yellow Cab this past summer. And Dhuubow wasn't the only cabbie with complaints. A total of 21 current and former Yellow Cab drivers, all African immigrants, signed on to the suit, claiming years of discrimination and abuse. According to the suit, Alexander, as well as Driver Supervisor Michael Rivera and Manager of Driver Operations Wayne Roberson, repeatedly subjected the drivers to verbal attacks, calling them "nigger," "African monkey," "dumb African," "crazy Somali" and "animal."

None of the Yellow Cab managers named in the lawsuit were able to respond to the claims. "No one on our team can respond to questions about ongoing litigation," says Ruth Otte, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Veolia Transportation, which bought Yellow Cab in 2004. "I can tell you that we have fully investigated the allegations that were made and are confident they will be proven to be baseless."

Those allegations include claims that Yellow Cab's managers sometimes got physical with the drivers. Roberson reportedly punched a driver in the face, while Rivera shoved one employee in the chest and tried to fight another. Alexander, meanwhile, pushed one African driver over a trash can, swatted another "as if he were a fly," and "punched an African driver until he was unconscious," according to the suit.

 

The African drivers faced subtler discrimination, too. Management reportedly shut off their in-cab computers so they couldn't work, assigned them lower-paying jobs and made them wait longer than white drivers for assignments. When one driver took several weeks off to visit his family in Somalia, he returned to find the car he owned torn apart and relegated to the company's salvage yard, his dispatch computer, floor mats and dashboard CD player missing and his personal belongings scattered about the yard.

According to the suit, Yellow Cab also penalized the drivers for accidents in which they were not at fault or there was little damage, even when they were paying for insurance coverage. The company fined them for alleged PUC violations and other infractions for which it never provided evidence, including "failure to report for maintenance" charges, unexplained late fees, "incomplete trip sheet" fees, "loaner cab" penalties, "blew off bell" charges. Sometimes there was no explanation at all for charges that reached into four digits. When one driver refused to pay, his bill was sent to a collection agency.

While Dhuubow was able to get a job at Freedom Cabs after he left Yellow, not all of his colleagues were as lucky. When some of the drivers who'd run afoul of Yellow Cab looked for work at the city's other cab companies, managers at Metro Taxi and Freedom reportedly told them they couldn't hire them after talking with representatives of Yellow Cab.

"That seems like something that would be very unlikely to occur at Freedom Cabs," says Max Sarr, Freedom's operations manager. "But if I know a driver has been let go from Yellow or Metro, especially because of customer-service problems, I don't want that driver on the street." (Officials with Metro Taxi — the town's largest cab company, whose head, Robert McBride, recently assumed the presidency of the country's Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association — did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this or other issues.)

Odawaay is one of the drivers who joined in the lawsuit. Of all the abuse he experienced at Yellow Cab, he says, one incident in particular stands out. It was September 2007, and he'd promised his five-year-old son that, at the end of the week, he'd take him to a Nuggets game and buy him a pair of $90 Air Jordans. Odawaay worked extra hours that week, and by Friday, he'd made $964, according to his receipts. But when he went to Yellow Cab's office, he was presented with a bill for $887.62 that included such charges as a $486 "accelerated recurring note." When he asked for an explanation, he was told to leave or he'd be fired. So he drove home with just $76 for the week and then sat in his cab outside his home, waiting for his son to go to bed because he couldn't bear to face him.

"It was my worst moment," says Odawaay. And it was one of the reasons he decided to join with other drivers — including Dhuubow — to try to change things. But a lawsuit wasn't their first plan. Instead, they decided to start a new cab company.

When Alexander got word, he laughed and offered to buy Odawaay season tickets for the Nuggets if the attempt was successful. After all, Odawaay remembers him saying, "You'd have a better shot landing on the moon."

*****

Until 1995, when Freedom was allowed to start operations and join Yellow Cab and Metro in the marketplace, no new cab business had been permitted in Denver for 48 years. And things weren't much looser when Odawaay, Dhuubow and other drivers decided to set up their own outfit in 2007.

Under Colorado law, taxis had long been seen as a public service that had to be regulated and protected. In order for a new cab company to get its license, the Public Utilities Commission had to be assured that there was both a significant public need for it and that the new company wouldn't put existing operators out of business and shortchange the public — an extremely high bar. While other states regulate taxis this way, most have a trade-off: In exchange for enjoying such "regulated competition," taxi companies are often subject to laws restricting how much they can charge their drivers.

But in Colorado, the PUC was restricted from regulating the lease rates that companies charged cabbies. The result was "the worst of both worlds," says former PUC chairman Ray Gifford, explaining that the companies could essentially charge drivers whatever they wanted without the pressures of normal market forces. According to a PUC study, Denver taxi lease rates increased by an average of 5.4 percent annually between 2002 and 2008, while the market itself, based on total taxi trips, increased only 2.7 percent.

 

Yellow, a one-time co-op that went bankrupt and was sold to investors in 1996, reportedly now charges drivers between $515 and $860 a week, depending on their lease, to drive one of its 300 cabs, while Metro, with 492 taxis, purportedly charges between $512 and $920. Freedom, however, charges the drivers of its 150 purple cabs just $303 a week. "The reason our lease is still low, I think, is that all our drivers own their cars, and we don't have computers in the cabs. We use two-way radios," says Sarr. "And I really don't want to put our drivers under a lot of pressure where they have to go and hustle to come and pay me and put money in my pocket."

Historically, drivers had little recourse regarding high lease rates or other complaints. As independent contractors, they had no job protection, collective bargaining rights or other privileges provided by the National Labor Relations Act. But in 2003, some Denver cabbies decided to take matters into their own hands, founding a union called Pro Taxi. Within a few years, the organization had swelled from a dozen drivers to more than half of the city's roughly 1,000 cabbies. Some joined because they were losing a huge chunk of their income to Metro and Yellow's lease rates and arbitrary fees; others, like Odawaay, came with stories of abuse at Yellow.

"The drivers need a voice; they were not active," says Abdi Buni, one of Pro Taxi's founders, who claims he was kicked by a Yellow Cab manager after he took a week off to mourn the death of a family member in 2003, though he was not involved in the lawsuit filed against the company. "It was time to fight and create our own freedom."

By 2007, Pro Taxi members had decided the best way to do that was to relax the taxi laws. While similar attempts had been made in the past, the drivers now had a few things going for them. Complaints about taxi service had been escalating, with people grumbling about how difficult it was to get a cab in many parts of the metro area. Disabled customers said drivers weren't interested in taking them on short-distance trips, while the airport was becoming clogged with taxis waiting all day for big fares. A PUC study that year found that Yellow and Metro's average fares were higher than those in many of the largest U.S. cities. And with Denver set to host the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2008, many people agreed that it was time for some changes.

In April 2007, House Bill 1114 was introduced in the legislature. As originally drafted, it called for significant deregulation of the taxicab market, which would make it easier to start new cab companies. Hundreds of Pro Taxi cabbies flocked to the Capitol in support, but they were met with the full force of the existing cab companies coming out against the bill.

"For more than a decade, Yellow, Metro and Freedom co-existed in a competitive situation, yet because the total number of taxis was more closely matched to the demand for taxis, taxi operators for all three companies who worked hard could make sufficient income," explains Veolia's Otte. "It is important to remember that in addition to competition between taxi companies, taxi operators face competition from town cars, airport shuttles, transit buses, paid hotel shuttles and other forms of transportation, including the private automobile."

The taxicab companies hired powerful lobbyists to fight the bill and also offered taxi lease discounts to cabbies willing to call legislators and read a script opposing the measure, several Yellow Cab drivers reported at the time.

HB 1114 was amended 24 times, split into two parts and ultimately stripped of all deregulation elements. As passed, it simply allowed the PUC to look into the issue of lease rates, which the commission did in a March 2008 staff report that came to no definite conclusions.

But a few months after that report was released, Pro Taxi activists finally won a victory at the Capitol. In a bipartisan effort, state senators Chris Romer and Josh Penry successfully co-sponsored legislation that changed course for new taxicab company applications. Instead of prospective companies having to prove there was sufficient public demand for new service, this measure shifted the burden of proof to existing cab companies, which would have to show conclusively that the market couldn't bear new companies in order to block one from starting.

In June 2008, right before that bill went into effect, more than 200 Pro Taxi drivers filed for a temporary authority to get a new, employee-owned venture called Union Taxi up and running before the DNC rolled into town two months later.

 

The PUC denied their application. "We had an immediate signal that they were going to interpret this new law in a much more incumbent-friendly way than we had hoped and thought was warranted," says Gifford, who represented Union during the application process. "That began what was in our minds a willingness to bend over backwards to accommodate all of the delaying tactics the incumbents threw at us."

In May 2009, Union Taxi was finally allowed to put 220 orange cabs into operation — after months of legal negotiations and eleven days of PUC hearings. In the meantime, however, Denver had instituted a new policy that for the first time limited how many taxis could visit the airport each day; because the 201 daily access permits were allocated by market share, only 35 went to Union.

Still, for the first time in nearly fifteen years, a new taxi company was patrolling Denver's streets, one whose $200-a-week driver lease rates were reportedly the lowest in the nation.

Among Union's founders were several of the Yellow Cab drivers who would later sue the company for discrimination and abuse — including Odawaay, who drove only a few months for Union before giving his spot in the fleet to another driver. "I just didn't want to drive taxis anymore," he says. He says he never did get the promised Nuggets tickets from Alexander.

*****

When University of Denver law professor Tom Russell started dabbling in taxicab regulations in the spring of 2009, he had no idea what he was getting into. In September 2008, a group of 150 drivers had applied to start another owner-operated company, to be called Mile High Cab; a few months into the process, they approached Russell to represent them in the PUC hearings scheduled for early fall 2009. Union Taxi, which had applied just a few months earlier than Mile High, had recently been approved, as had an expansion of Freedom's fleet from 150 to 250 cabs. In the process, the metro area's fleet had grown from a total of 942 taxis to 1,304.

"We saw Union Taxi go through, so we tried to use the same law," says Edem "Archie" Archibong, a member of Pro Taxi and a driving force behind Mile High. "Before we knew it, there were 149 others willing to bring their life savings into it."

As with Union, most of Mile High's supporters were African immigrants. But their company would be different, they told Russell. It would charge no fees for extra passengers and baggage, and would focus on the communities encircling Denver — places like Golden, Castle Rock and Parker. "The work today is outside downtown Denver and outside the hotels," says Archibong. "Maybe 100,000 people in the metro area call taxis now, but there are a million people in the region we could serve."

Russell agreed to help, figuring it would be just a few months before Mile High got the green light. Although the legislature had reversed Colorado's new taxi law in July 2009 by passing Senate Bill 294, once again making it difficult for new companies to start up, that legislation was not supposed to affect ventures that had already applied. "There was a belief there was sufficient competition for now," explains Romer, who sponsored the measure.

Union hadn't put any obstacles in Mile High's way, nor had Freedom. And while Yellow opposed the prospective company, its only complaint was that Mile High did not seem operationally fit. Then again, Yellow had itself applied to put 150 additional vehicles on the street just before SB 294 took effect. (That application is awaiting a decision from an administrative law judge.) Only Metro was opposing Mile High on the basis that the market couldn't support more cabs. All in all, Russell says, "I thought this was going to be a smallish project."

He was wrong.

While Mile High's application had bipartisan support from Romer and Penry, as well as Congressman Ed Perlmutter and Ryan Frazier, the Republican city councilman from Aurora who would soon run against Perlmutter in the seventh district, other elected officials weren't as supportive. Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock, for example, was subpoenaed by Metro to testify before the PUC about what he saw as a "saturation of taxis in downtown Denver" — testimony that allowed Russell, in cross-examination, to ask about the $3,250 that Hancock had received from people affiliated with Metro during his last council campaign.

"I have had a relationship with Metro over the years," Hancock says now. "But not one time have I ever been asked to do anything unethical by Metro Taxi or anybody else who may have business before the city."

Hancock wasn't alone in opposing Mile High. In August 2009, Mayor John Hickenlooper wrote a letter expressing concerns about allowing additional cabs into the metro area and quoting from a July 2009 letter he'd received from Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association president Christine O'Donnell that noted, among other complaints, that Union did not have a central dispatch system, which meant its drivers were already clogging downtown streets, scouring for fares.

 

But Union actually had a two-way radio system in place the day it started, as required by PUC regulations, a system that has since been upgraded to an $800,000 computer dispatch system.

"Well, then, I am wrong," says O'Donnell now. "That information was given to me by one of the hotels, which said that one of its guests had left something in one of Union's cabs and it was near to impossible to track down that cab." Since writing that letter last year, she adds, "I am not getting the same level of taxi concerns from my membership."

But Hickenlooper, whose gubernatorial campaign received $500 from Brad Whittle, president of the company that operates Yellow Cab, stands by his objections to Mile High. "We have not received updates on the specifics mentioned in the letter — such as if Union Taxi has a dispatch company — but the general observations and concerns raised in the letter remain pertinent," says Hickenlooper spokeswoman Kathy Maloney.

This August, in a much-delayed decision, Paul Gomez, a PUC administrative law judge, rejected Mile High's application. While he found the company fit to provide service, he said, he'd been persuaded by Metro's arguments that the Denver taxi market was at or near capacity.

In the nearly two years they'd been waiting for Gomez's answers, some of Mile High's would-be drivers had lost their jobs with other cab companies. Ahmed Nuri, for example, says that once his bosses at Yellow Cab saw his name on Mile High's application, he was told he could no longer work for them. "I feel like I don't have any rights or power," says Nuri, who now drives for Freedom. "How come we've had to wait for years for a decision? I have never seen such things in America."

*****

Nuri, Archibong and the others aren't yet ready to give up on Mile High, even after the PUC, in a review hearing last week, voted two to one to agree with Gomez and reject the company's application. Now the drivers will either officially urge the PUC to reconsider, or else take the matter to Denver District Court. According to Russell's calculations, the process has now been going on for 800 days and counting.

"I am disappointed, but I still have a lot of fight left in me," says Archibong, who attended the hearing along with many of his co-applicants. "For them to say there are too many cabs in the five-county area, that is a fallacy."

Does Denver need more taxis? It's a question that officials have been struggling to answer for years. In response to attempts to deregulate the industry in 2007, Visit Denver conducted a $75,000 study of the local cab industry, one that Yellow Cab, Metro Taxi and Freedom Cabs agreed to bankroll at the request of Hancock. That study, authored by Tennessee-based transportation expert Ray Mundy, found that the quality of the existing metro-area taxi service was relatively good and that "the correct number of taxi permits in Denver is 942" — which happened to be the number of permits then allowed in Denver.

"We pretty much determined at the present time you didn't need any more taxicabs for the Democratic National Convention and didn't need any more cabs at all," Mundy says now. "You have very good cab service for a city that size."

Based on his findings, Mundy testified against both Union and Mile High's applications before the PUC. And in January 2009, Robert Tschupp, vice president of Veolia, used Mundy's conclusions to urge Visit Denver, the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association and Hancock to contest the PUC's decision to allow Union to enter the market. As Tschupp noted in an e-mail (which Westword obtained through an open-records request), Mundy's study had recommended that in the future, the PUC should only approve taxi companies that "have a long-run view of their firm and community, professional management, modern technology, sufficient capitalization, and a legitimate profit motive in their ability to serve and expand taxi market opportunities." Tschupp concluded, "Only Yellow Cab and Metro fit this definition."

"We considered Dr. Mundy's study unfair," says Freedom Cab's Sarr, who was allowed to make comments on a draft of the report before its release. "Really what he was saying was that in Denver, Freedom is not a real cab company." Sarr says he does not recall whether, in the end, his company helped pay for the study.

Sarr isn't the only one who disagrees with Mundy's conclusions, which were largely based on failed deregulation attempts in U.S. cities prior to 1990. "You talk to Ray Mundy and he says the free market will never work for taxis," says David Seymour, a policy analyst for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Canadian free-market think tank that has been critical of a taxi study Mundy completed in Saskatchewan. "But he never explains why the evidence he bases this on all ends in 1990 in the United States, and why he fails to consider other countries that have very similar societies and economies to the U.S. that have deregulated taxis in the meantime." According to Seymour, taxi deregulation in places such as Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden has yielded positive results.

 

Mundy explains that his work relies largely on older deregulation attempts because "we want to look at what's happened over a long period of time."

And here in Denver, that approach has remained largely unchallenged. "I haven't seen a study come out that conflicts with those findings," says the CHLA's O'Donnell. But in 2007, while Hancock was asking the cab companies to fund that study, his staff had a copy of an unpublicized city report completed two years earlier that had already weighed in on the issue.

According to that report, which was prepared for the city's Office of Economic Development by Cornelius Consulting, "The quality of [taxi] service is deteriorating with frequent reports of rude behavior and refusal of service. This poor service is a function of easy entry with inadequate training, inability to earn income with downtown transfers, and high lease fees imposed by the cab companies." Cornelius Consulting also determined, "Even though drivers may feel there are too many taxis licensed to operate in Denver, the City is not being over-served compared to cities of comparable size."

"Cab companies weren't paying me," says Connie Cornelius, the owner of Cornelius Consulting, which has since relocated from Colorado to Arizona. "The PUC is kind of closing its eyes, and it's the drivers who are caught between a rock and a hard place."

Neither Union nor Mile High officials had ever heard of Cornelius Consulting's report. And while a copy was provided by Hancock's office in response to a Westword open-records request, "I never saw its final analysis." Hancock says. "I don't remember anyone ever bringing it up."

Still, Hancock admits that if you take the city as a whole, "we are not over-served by taxis." The problem, he says, is that too many taxis are concentrated downtown, with cabbies blocking the streets around hotels and sometimes refusing to take low-paying trips.

Ruth Otte of Veolia blames those problems on Union coming into the market and Freedom expanding its fleet. "The bottom line is that the 38 percent increase in taxi supply, with no commensurate increase in demand, has led to an over-supply of taxis in the Denver metro market, resulting in a depressive effect on taxi operator earnings and a number of other unintended consequences," she says, adding that the increase in permits, combined with the economic downturn, has led to customer-service complaints, short-trip refusals and reports of drivers who don't know the city.

As for Yellow itself trying to expand by 150 cabs, she says, "The fact is that we do not necessarily believe the market needs or can support more permits, particularly not in the near term. But at the same time, if permits are being given out, we felt that to be competitive, we needed to apply."

While Sarr prefers not to weigh in on Union's effect on the Denver taxicab market, he says that by imposing new taxi limits at DIA without increasing the number of official taxi stands downtown, the city forced many cabs to roam city streets and take up parking spaces. "Where are all those cabs going to go?" he asks. "And is DIA really able to handle just 201 cabs a day? That is an issue here."

Buni, one of Pro Taxi's founders, points to the high lease rates charged some drivers as the real culprit. To pay their bills, he says, these drivers feel they have to turn down low fares and stay on the street longer than they are legally allowed to. In 2009, the PUC assessed Freedom an $80,000 fine, Metro a $148,000 fine and Yellow a $165,000 fine for dozens of instances of drivers working more than the maximum of 80 hours over an eight-day period. "These drivers know that hustling the hotels, cruising around downtown and taking airport rides is the only way to make their leases," says Buni. "If cab companies didn't charge drivers so much, you wouldn't see too many cabs downtown. I always say the city can handle two or three more taxi companies downtown."

Buni and several Union Taxi drivers testified in support of Mile High. They told the PUC that because of their much-reduced lease rates, they now worked shorter days, had more time to spend with their families, treated their customers better and, thanks to a company-wide rule, never refused fares. According to Terry Bote, public information officer for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, since Union started operations in May 2009, the company has boasted a spotless record — while Yellow Cab has been penalized $3,630 for failing to post fare rates in some of its cabs, and Freedom Cabs was fined $2,205 for similar violations, as well as vehicle-condition infractions.

 

Yes, Union's drivers told the PUC, they knew Mile High's approval would mean more competition. So be it. As one of them put it, "Since I started driving for Union Taxi, I have more time to spend...planning to change my life. So I want the other drivers to have that opportunity, since this is the land of opportunity."

Gifford, who followed the proceedings, was struck by the testimony. "When folks who are all African immigrants have to teach Americans about the benefits of the free market and the entrepreneurial system, something's backwards," he says.

*****

At the same time some drivers were working to change Colorado's taxi laws, others were approaching civil-rights lawyer Diane King, to see if they had a case because of what they'd experienced at Yellow Cab.

King has been litigating worker-mistreatment claims for years, successfully taking on the likes of the Denver Country Club, the Colorado Department of Corrections and Lockheed Martin; she's served as co-president of the Plaintiffs' Employment Lawyers Association and chaired the American Civil Liberties Union board of directors. Still, she says she was taken aback by the stories she heard from Yellow Cab drivers when they came to her in 2006 asking for help. "I was struck by how egregious the behavior they described was," she remembers.

She was also struck by how few legal remedies the drivers appeared to have. When she asked to see their Yellow Cab contracts, the cabbies said they'd never been given copies. Only after what King calls "many, many months and numerous requests" did Yellow Cab provide her with those contracts.

According to the agreements, the drivers had apparently signed away their right to a jury trial. Instead, the contracts noted that all grievances had to be settled through arbitration — a daunting prospect, King notes, because pricey arbitration costs are usually split equally between the two parties involved. "It's so expensive, it doesn't make sense," she says.

The lawsuit she later filed on the drivers' behalf claims that Yellow Cab managers never described the driver contracts to cabbies before they signed them, even though most of the drivers involved weren't proficient enough in English to read and understand the paperwork themselves. "They never explained them to us, and most of us could only read Somali," says Odawaay, who signed his contract in 2002. "When we found out we could only go to arbitration, it was a back stab. They tricked us so bad."

King noticed something else in the contracts. Denver taxi companies must sign operator permits with the airport promising, among other things, that they will include non-discrimination provisions in their subcontracts. While that stipulation has been in effect since at least 2004, according to DIA spokeswoman Laura Coale, driver contracts obtained by King that were dated 2005 and 2008 contained no such non-discrimination clauses. According to Otte, that's because the company's drivers are contractors, not subcontractors.

In February 2009, King filed preliminary arbitration paperwork on behalf of nearly two dozen former and current Yellow Cab drivers. But since the drivers were ultimately unable to raise the $64,000 that the arbitration was going to cost them, in June 2009 King stayed the arbitration proceedings and instead filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming that the prohibitive costs deprived her clients of their due process rights. That complaint, which vividly detailed the drivers' allegations, was apparently enough to make Yellow Cab reconsider the arbitration arrangement. Two months later, the drivers voluntarily dismissed their court complaint and renewed arbitration proceedings, for which Yellow agreed to pay all but $30,000 of the costs. The formal arbitration is now scheduled to begin in March.

While Gifford hadn't previously heard of the Yellow Cab lawsuit or the arbitration, the former PUC chairman doesn't find allegations of abuse and discrimination at one of Denver's major cab companies all that surprising. "You have a regulatory system that has been antiquated and perverted against both drivers and the public, to privilege and give enormous profits to those who control the business," he says. "And if you look at the system we have in Yellow and Metro, with the high lease rates and inability for the drivers to go hardly anywhere else, you do have an indentured-servitude vibe going on."

 

Dhuubow believes that vibe explains the abusive way he was treated by his employers after his 2005 accident. And another former Yellow Cab driver says he felt the heat after he tried to help Dhuubow. "It's so easy for these people to ruin your life," he says.

Since the driver was working on the side as a translator for Yellow Cab, in June 2005 he sat in on a discussion between Dhuubow and Doerr, Yellow Cab's claims manager, about Dhuubow's medical bills. At one point during the conversation, he suggested to Dhuubow in Somali that he seek legal help, using the English word "lawyer."

As soon as Doerr heard that word, everything changed, the driver says. "Now you can go," she reportedly told him. Soon inexplicable fees and fines began appearing on his weekly bills, and when he asked about them, Yellow Cab managers responded with comments like, "Why do you have to be an advocate for African drivers?"

But the real trouble started when the driver returned from a one-week leave of absence on September 7, 2005. According to documents obtained from the arbitration proceedings, that's when Yellow Cab driver operations manager Wayne Roberson called him into his office, accused him of being a criminal and called a Denver detective, who told the driver to report to the police station the next day. When he did, the driver was arrested for sexual assault. "It was the first and only time I've been arrested in my life," the driver says. "I was humiliated in front of my community."

It turned out that Roberson had told the police the driver matched the description of a cabbie who had attacked a woman on August 18. After paying bail, the driver tried to get the GPS records for his cab that night, to prove he wasn't in the vicinity of the crime. But both Roberson and Alexander refused his request, he says; according to the legal documents and police records, Roberson told a detective that the driver's GPS device had been turned off at the time of the assault.

That wasn't the case. After the driver spent almost $12,000 on a lawyer, a private investigator and a polygraph test that he passed, Roberson handed over the driver's full GPS report for August 18. Since the records showed his cab had been across town in Arvada when the assault occurred, the police cleared him of all charges.

But the pain of the experience remains. "It changed my life; it changed everything," says the driver, who has trouble discussing the incident without breaking down. "Before that happened, I thought everyone had rights in this country. Now that's changed."

That's why he never went back to work for Yellow Cab. And that's why he's among the 150 drivers now fighting to launch Mile High Cab. "The drivers behind Union and Mile High are in the same boat," he says. "Nobody wanted to start a new cab company. The only reason we decided to do so was because we are fed up with the poor treatment, we are fed up with the over-charging.

"Enough is enough," he says. "We have to free ourselves."

Ahmed Odawaay says driving a taxi "is the worst thing you could ever do."
mark manger

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