As the Colorado Avalanche wraps up another Tuesday-night home game at the Pepsi Center, Flash maneuvers his way through LoDo looking for fares. "This is such a dead-end job," he says. "My back is killing me and my ass is numb."
Flash has been driving for Metro Taxi for just over three months, and already he hates it. He fell on hard times after having to sell his small business to care for his ailing mother, and driving certainly isn't the money he thought it might be.
"The cab business, it'll wear you out," he says. "The competition is so heavy that I'm always operating at a loss."
Flash owes Metro $550 every week, so he says he has to drive more than twenty hours each day, often falling asleep on the job, just to take home about $50 per day after expenses. "At the end of the month, when you have to pay your mortgage or you have to pay the taxi company, it's a tough choice," he says. "So you go in and do a little dance for The Man and try and buy a little more time. It's like a Mafia setup."
Nearly a thousand people are currently licensed by Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses to drive for the three taxi companies in town -- Yellow Cab, Metro Taxi and Freedom Cab -- and they pay their employers an average of $300 to $600 a week for the right to drive, depending on such variables as whether they use their own car or take dispatch calls instead of just airport and hotel runs. And since the drivers are considered independent contractors, the companies don't have to provide health benefits or pay overtime or employment taxes.
This status makes it difficult for drivers to fight for a better arrangement, because technically, they aren't employees, but Adam Bartolik is organizing anyway. "The odds are stacked against you," says the president of ProTAXI, the trade association he helped form last fall to fight for taxi drivers' rights. "We need to establish ourselves as the representative voice for drivers. We're not approaching this like we're trying to unionize; obviously we can't, because we're not considered employees."
One of ProTAXI's first goals is to reduce the number of drivers who are licensed to drive a cab. Group members believe there are too many taxis on the city's streets and not enough passengers, a situation that greatly limits the amount of money individual drivers can make. Currently, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission allows 942 taxi permits. Three hundred of those belong to Yellow, 492 to Metro and 150 to Freedom.
"It doesn't hurt the cab companies to have too many drivers," notes Bartolik, who drives for Yellow Cab. "In actuality, the more drivers that are out there, the more money the cab companies are making. But it reduces our income pool. We don't begrudge the cab companies making a fair profit on business, but we want them to be more responsible to the professional career drivers who are out there. We're the ones who do this business every day and every night.
"Without a permit, you can't drive a taxi," he goes on. "But the companies hold those permits in perpetuity. If you work twenty years for the cab company and decide to walk away, you have nothing. We're not employees, but we can't do the business independently."
The cab companies insist they're not raking it in, either. "Obviously they pay me money, and they'd like to pay me less," says Yellow Cab president Ross Alexander. "But I have millions of dollars tied up in the infrastructure for all this -- GPS, people answering the phone, the processing of the paperwork. Fuel is up, and it's not coming down in a hurry. Our insurance has gone up a ton. It all costs me money. I'm not bringing in any more money than last year; in fact, I'm bringing in less.
"Most people think we're a national company, but we're not; we're a locally owned small business," he continues. "If you look at the records, the cab companies aren't getting rich. It is a very small margin."
Still, state representative Michael Cerbo would also like to see stricter regulations on the number of taxi permits issued, as well as on the quality of drivers, vehicle safety and insurance rates. "These drivers are providing public transit, and they need our help," says Cerbo, who drove a Denver cab in the early 1970s. "It's an area that I'm going to be looking into this year.
"We had some dignity on the job," he adds. "We could actually make a living doing a 40- to 45-hour week. It wasn't as much of a grind as it seems now. But the lack of regulation makes this a dog-eat-dog business. I think that the state and local governments should write up some new regulations for the industry."
The PUC already regulates the number of hours per day a driver can work -- no more than ten hours, following eight consecutive hours off duty -- but many drivers say those rules make it impossible to make a decent living. "It's such a lie," Flash says. "The company sits there and tells me, 'Make sure you only work ten hours per day.' But you just can't make a living at that, and they tell you that, too. So they tell you to lie, to make sure that you don't report more than ten hours. They say that the PUC just doesn't understand the industry."
While Bartolik works on those bigger-picture issues, he's also arranging a group health-insurance plan and has set up group dental coverage. "Right now, anything we can get is better than what we have now," he says.
ProTAXI has already attracted roughly 200 members, who pay dues of $30 each month, but some drivers are still hesitant to join. "Drivers have a bad history with groups like us because we've had a couple of attempts at a drivers' association in the past that have fallen through. People have absconded with money, cut deals with the cab companies to get a deal on their lease," says Bartolik. "So we're building a trust, not just with our members, but hopefully with the drivers out on the street. Without it, we're just a bunch of angry guys in a room screaming at each other, and we want to be more than that. We want to be a unified, representative voice for the drivers to the public, to local government and businesses and to the cab companies."
That's what Denver City Council president Elbra Wedgeworth would like to see, too. "I really think that it is an industry that needs more organization in terms of rights for their workers," she says. "We're different from New York in that Denver is not a place right now where you can walk out and hail a cab. But we're becoming more cosmopolitan, and this is an industry that needs to be looked at. We need to come up with a more comprehensive taxi system."
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But as early Wednesday morning looms on the dashboard clock, the streets of Denver become more and more quiet, and Flash becomes more and more frustrated. The words of Frank Bayscore, his company's manager of marketing, are ringing hollow: "No one ever said that it was an easy job, but if you get out there and hustle, think outside the box, you can make a good living at this."
"Isn't it ironic that one of the things that attracted me to this business was the freedom?" he asks. "I've been driving for nine hours, and I've made $70. If I put in another three hours and get another $40, I'll be lucky. This job sucks."
A week later, he quit.