He leased the taxi from a fleet, paying for gasoline and hustling each day to pick up as many tourists and businessmen as he could.
It didn’t make for a life of riches, but Simmons and his wife, a Catholic school teacher, made enough to pay their bills and put food on the table for their three children.
Then Simmons fell ill — and there was no safety net to catch him.
No work. No income.
His plight highlights a seldom-discussed aspect of a lucrative industry in which a single cab medallion can fetch more than $1 million — there is often no safety net in place for the drivers who do the grunt work but develop a serious illness.
Many taxi fleets don’t provide disability insurance for drivers who become ill or are injured while off-duty, according to the state Workers Compensation Board. Drivers are provided with workers’ compensation insurance for on-the-job injuries, however.
It was six years ago, Simmons said, that he was hospitalized for more than a month because of high blood pressure and complications it caused. Then, a few years later, he was sidelined and hospitalized again for four weeks due to heart problems.
Things got so bad, the proud cabbie from Queens had to stand in line outside church food pantries, waiting for handouts.
“I was so embarrassed,” Simmons, 65, said, breaking into tears and sobbing. “We were just getting by. It was a struggle, a real struggle.”
Disability insurance would ensure that hard-working hacks like Simmons don’t have to go begging for food while recuperating from illness.
If there is good news on this score, it is that an official from the state Workers’ Compensation Board earlier this year told the city Taxi and Limousine Commission that, in the board’s view, yellow cab fleets are required by state law to provide disability insurance for drivers, both agencies confirmed to the Daily News.
What’s troubling is that the Workers’ Compensation Board’s interpretation of state law could have been made — and enforced — a long time ago. The TLC also should have flagged the issue.
“The fleets betrayed us, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Workers Compensation Board failed us,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and a steadfast champion of cabbies.
Unaware of the fleets’ responsibility, the Taxi Workers Alliance and the TLC last year approved the creation of a new, driver-funded health-services program for hacks. On Oct. 1, cabbies started paying 6 cents per ride into the fund.
“It’s precisely for the reason that the fleets have ignored the coverage requirement that we had to step in to ensure that drivers were protected,” TLC Chairman David Yassky told the Daily News.
Ethan Gerber, executive director of the Greater New York Taxi Association, said the Workers Compensation Board never notified his group of fleet owners of the requirement to provide disability coverage.
The Workers’ Compensation Board issued a statement saying that compliance in the taxi industry “has historically been difficult to enforce” because of the many complex relationships between fleet owners, medallion brokers, drivers and others. Some drivers, for example, own both a medallion and a car. Some lease their medallion but own their own car. Some lease both, and are not directly paid by a fleet but are not completely independent, either.
The board said it has in recent years “increased its focus” on the taxi and livery industries, and is working to identify fleet companies that fail to comply with the insurance requirement.
Simmons said his kidneys “are shot,” requiring him to undergo dialysis regularly. He’s still driving part-time. He needs the income.
“I’m supposed to be retiring but I can’t stop working,” he said. “Every time I think about it, I get so emotional. All the years I put into this industry and no one helped me.”
[NY Daily News Report]