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NYC taxi drivers are in the 2nd week of a hunger strike for medallion debt relief

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

New York City taxi medallions once gave cabs the exclusive right to pick up passengers on the street. They were once worth more than a million dollars. Drivers took out costly loans to buy them. Then the market crashed, partly due to Uber and Lyft. The city has launched a debt relief program, but many drivers say it's not enough, and some have gone on a hunger strike. From member station WNYC, Stephen Nessen reports.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: For the past month, dozens of yellow cabs have lined up outside of City Hall in Lower Manhattan to send a message to the mayor and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates the industry.

BHAIRAVI DESAI: We are not going to be treated as second-class citizens in a city that our blood, sweat and tears have built for over 100 years.

NESSEN: That's Bhairavi Desai, the president of the Taxi Workers Alliance, a union representing 25,000 drivers. Her hand is shaky, and she looks pale. She's been on a hunger strike for a week now. And she calls the city's debt relief plan a bridge to bankruptcy.

DESAI: It's not going to have enough impact and on enough drivers. Too many people, thousands, will be left to financial ruin.

NESSEN: A taxi medallion used to be a sure bet. It guaranteed drivers a steady income. When the medallion plummeted in value, many drivers lost their livelihoods and were still stuck with crushing debt. Nine drivers took their own lives since the crash. Three of them owned medallions and were deeply in debt. In response to the crisis, the city came up with a program using $65 million in federal COVID relief money to give medallion owners a one-time $20,000 payment toward their loans, and a nonprofit lawyer will negotiate with lenders to help lower drivers' overall debts.

But the Taxi Workers Alliance says the city's plan won't reduce the debt enough or help all the drivers in need, and they're not alone. They have federal allies, including Senator Chuck Schumer, whose father-in-law was a New York City taxi driver. He helped secure the COVID relief funds the city is using, and he agrees with the union. There are about 6,000 medallions owned by drivers, and the city estimates about a third of them may be facing insolvency. One of them is 47-year-old driver Rajeev Kaushik, who bought his medallion in 2009 for about half a million dollars. Kaushik still owes $330,000 and says he's tried to restructure his loan three times already.

RAJEEV KAUSHIK: But three times failed. They don't want to come to any kind of deal, so I have no option.

NESSEN: He finally defaulted last year. His cab now sits in front of his home. The city's program won't help him, but the Taxi Workers Alliance has a plan that might. It wants the city to guarantee every loan, so if a driver does default, the bank doesn't come and take all the driver's personal assets. The union says if the city backed Kaushik's loan, the bank might let him keep the medallion. The union says its plan would cost $93 million over 30 years, and it could help 4,000 drivers. That's twice as many drivers as the city's plan can help. But Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city can't afford it. He insists the current program is working and says it's already helped 150 drivers erase a total of $20 million in debt and lowered their monthly payments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL DE BLASIO: We're going to constantly look and see if there's anything else we can do that makes sense. But I want to emphasize this is having a real impact right now to relieve that pressure on the drivers.

NESSEN: For now, the city isn't budging, and the hunger strike continues.

For NPR news, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.