Over the last year, taxi drivers have paid the Port of Seattle somewhere around $4 million in fees for the privilege of picking up passengers at Sea-Tac International Airport.
And over that same time period, more than 400 drivers have shared one rank, mold-covered bathroom. With one stall, three urinals, and a door that stays open, the room reeks of urine. Sink water drips into a plastic tub on the floor. The situation has been like this for years, made even worse now with the addition of hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers. While the ride-share drivers wait in a separate lot, they share just several Honey Buckets, which sometimes get so ripe, they come over to share the taxi drivers' bathroom.
"It is nasty," says Mustafe Ismail, one of hundreds of mostly minority and immigrant drivers who serve the airport. "It is not healthy to anybody."
But the bathroom—a problem known to authorities for years—is just the most obvious manifestation of the poor working conditions taxi drivers face, according to a group that spoke to The Stranger. Represented by Teamsters Local 117, those drivers and their union representatives say they work under a contract that makes it nearly impossible to earn a living and support their families. They claim the taxi company Eastside for Hire and the Port of Seattle, which oversees Eastside's operations at the airport, are together failing to ensure they make the legally required minimum wage servicing one of the busiest airports in America.
On August 21 and 23, drivers staged two hour-long strikes at the airport to protest their working conditions. Soon after, the company told 18 drivers not to return to work. The workers say they weren't given a reason, but they believe they were suspended for speaking up.
The company tells a different story. Eastside assistant general manager Chris Van Dyk confirms the drivers were suspended, but says they violated their contracts with the company by standing in front of other cars and disrupting business.
"Our concern was that we had these people behaving like somewhere between a 4-year-old kid and a thug—a Teamster thug—standing there stopping people who wanted to work from working," Van Dyk says. "That's the way things are done in Mogadishu. That's not the way it's done here, okay?"
Five days after the first strike, 10 drivers gathered in a sterile first-floor classroom at the Teamsters' Tukwila office to try to figure out how to get their jobs back. Some received suspensions but were eventually permitted to go back to work. Others are still suspended. The drivers all agree they need to get back to work, and want a written notice of reinstatement and a promise of no further retaliation.
Ismail, who has a new daughter, says in an interview, "We are standing up for our rights and our freedom. This is America."
If the company doesn't address drivers' concerns, Ismail says, drivers will strike. He and his parents fled civil war in Somalia a decade ago. "You've run away from a bullet flying in your ears and your life can get caught in crossfire, so a strike is nothing to compare."
The gig economy has wreaked havoc on the legacy taxi industry. Trip data from the Port of Seattle shows a dramatic drop in taxi rides in recent years and an increase in rides for services like Uber and Lyft. Where taxi trips grew nearly 13 percent from 2014 to 2015, they dropped 10.5 percent the following year. Outside the airport, the effect has been dramatic, too. In the first two years ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft operated in Seattle, taxicab revenues fell 28 percent. In July, such companies made up about 34 percent of all ground transportation trips leaving the airport compared to 20 percent by taxis and the rest by other forms like rental cars.
Eastside, which last year won exclusive rights to run taxis at the airport, has attempted to survive by working with the start-ups. When Eastside beat out another company for the airport contract, it did so with underwriting from Uber. Uber promised up to $500,000 in "contingent financial backing" for Eastside and allowed Eastside drivers to use the app to get passengers headed back to the airport instead of driving empty, as they often had. Meanwhile, Eastside for Hire backed Uber in its fight against a City of Seattle law allowing ride-share drivers to unionize. The two companies cofounded Drive Forward, a driver organization that opposes unionization and has fought the Teamsters' efforts to represent Uber drivers.
Abdul Yusuf, an Eastside for Hire manager told the port commission earlier this month that his company "would like to achieve the same thing all the drivers here want." A driver in the audience shouted, "He's a liar!" Yusuf continued: "Our industry went through tremendous change... If everything is not being put in perspective and someone expects Eastside to bring back the magic days of the industry, that is not correct."
Some drivers represented by the Teamsters say they make about $6 to $8 an hour, less than the minimum wage, thanks to expenses like insurance, the increased number of cars competing for rides, and the squeeze from ride-share companies. Fees also cut into their wages.
In winning the airport contract last year, Eastside for Hire agreed its drivers would pay the Port of Seattle $7 per ride and a minimum of $4 million in total fees in the first year, increasing to $5 million over the five-year life of the contract. (Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, pay $5 per ride and, unlike taxi drivers, can pass that fee on to the passenger.)
Eastside for Hire charges each driver $495 a week. Of that, $340 goes to the port to cover the $7 per trip fee. That works out to roughly 49 rides at $7 each. If drivers haven't actually given that many rides in the prior week, Eastside says it refunds the necessary amount. But several drivers say they're not receiving those refunds, meaning they're paying $495 a week no matter how many rides they give. Since winning the contract, Eastside contracted about 100 more cars (some cars have multiple drivers) at the airport than the previous company, meaning fewer rides per driver.
Alemu Tegegn, who says he works 16 to 17 hours a day, says, "I am dying." Another driver, Sultan Mohamed, says he sometimes waits two hours for a ride only to take a passenger to a nearby hotel at a cost of $2 to $3. Yet, the $7 fee still applies, meaning he loses money.
Eastside disputes these claims. In its application for the airport contract, the company estimated that between rides at the airport and rides outside the airport, drivers would make $22.85 an hour. Van Dyk would not provide data or an estimate of how much drivers are making, but says he laughs when he hears single-digit estimates. "They're either not counting right or not working smart or both."
Locked into a five-year contract, neither Eastside nor the Port of Seattle has shown much willingness to change the terms of the deal.
The port staff and CEO (the most recent of whom resigned after giving himself and other employees illegal bonuses) secure contracts like Eastside's taxi deal, and the part-time port commission has an oversight function. Seattle port commissioner Fred Felleman, who recently helped get two new portable toilets delivered to the parking lot where drivers line up, calls the bathroom an "embarrassment" and says port commissioners "are all aghast" about the financial conditions drivers have described. Felleman says he believes, at the very least, that Uber and Lyft drivers should pay the same fees taxi drivers pay. He plans to propose other changes in late September.
Help from elsewhere may never come. While some Eastside drivers are members of Teamsters Local 117, the taxi company has no obligation to recognize the union. Like Uber drivers, Eastside's drivers own their own cars and are considered independent contractors. That means they're not protected by certain federal labor laws.
Several drivers said they felt targeted by the company after they became active in the union. The company has prevented a Teamsters organizer from visiting the lot where drivers line up waiting for rides. One driver says he was told to remove a Teamsters sticker from his taxi's bumper. But without union protections, they may not have the same safeguards against retaliation as other workers have. "We're going to test that," says Leonard Smith, director of organizing at Teamsters 117.
At the meeting at the Teamsters offices, as the drivers debate just how much to ask for as they try to get their jobs back, Smith reminds them of the ambiguity of labor law when it comes to their situations. "There's no guarantee that they'll meet or do any of this stuff," he says. The drivers nod their heads. "It's a matter of forcing it to happen."
Correction: This post originally stated that Uber and Lyft drivers share one Honey Bucket at SeaTac International Airport. In fact, there are several Honey Bucket portable toilets for the drivers to use.