In the early morning hours of February 5, 2018, veteran black car driver Douglas Schifter uploaded a lengthy and emotional post to his Facebook page venting about the financial and emotional difficulties he and other drivers faced working in what we all know to be a very challenging industry. Over the course of his 44-year career, Schifter had driven for many of New York’s most prominent black car companies and was well-known for his professionalism and tireless advocacy for the rights of his fellow drivers.

In his post, Schifter described his declining health, how he was no longer able to meet his expenses, and how he believed politicians were destroying the industry by allowing unlimited numbers of for-hire vehicles on the streets, and through over-regulation.  The post ended with these ominous words: “I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.”

Later that morning Schifter drove to City Hall, placed a shotgun to his head, and ended his life. (The story became international news, including this article, which ran in New York Magazine.)

Sadly, Schifter’s suicide was not an isolated incident. There have been numerous reported suicides the past few years involving black car drivers, taxi drivers, Lyft and Uber drivers, and others. Many of these suicides occurred before COVID-19 reared its ugly head early last year, and most have been attributed to the deceased driver’s inability to earn enough in order to meet his expenses.

Now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has brought the transportation industry to a near standstill, the pressures bearing upon professional drivers have unquestionably reached brutal levels. Drivers who have seen their income dwindle to a fraction of what it once was are still expected to make their car payments, insurance payments, mortgage or rent payments, and pay for food, utilities and other living expenses. For some, the pressure is simply too much to bear.

There can be little argument but that the financial and other stressors caused by COVID-19 have taken a devastating toll on the mental health and well-being of large numbers of drivers, their families, and others who depend upon this industry for their livelihood. While the recent announcement that New York taxi and other for-hire drivers are now eligible to receive COVID vaccines is welcome news, a lack of customers seeking transportation to business meetings, airports and restaurants means a return to the pre-COVID world drivers once knew (which as I mentioned above was no paradise even before the pandemic) will not be coming any time soon.

For those dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and other issues due to the pandemic, there are a number of excellent resources that can provide help at little or no cost. They include:

  • The Black Car Fund’s Wellness, Safety & Education Program – provides drivers with training on how to maintain a healthy physical and emotional lifestyle. Free to drivers covered by the Fund. Visit nybcf.org/wellness for information and to register online.
  • The Independent Driver Guild’s Wellness Program – offered in conjunction with the Black Car Fund, the Guild’s free program offers discussion groups on stress management, relationships, life planning, and social issues; individual, couple, and family counseling; and classes on financial planning, chauffeur training, and other topics. Visit drivingguild.org/wellness/ or call 833-814-8590.
  • New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission’s Driver Resource Center – provides a wide range of services to TLC-licensed drivers including mental health referrals, legal services, financial counseling, and public benefits application support. Visit https://portal.driverresourcecenter.tlc.nyc.gov for more information.
  • NYC Well – City program providing 24/7 free, confidential crisis counseling, mental health and substance misuse support, information and referral among other services. Visit nycwell.cityofnewyork.us/en/ or call 1-888-NYC-WELL (1-888-692-9355). Services are offered in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as other languages through translation services.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — A national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish.
  • NY Project Hope Emotional Support Helpline – A free, confidential helpline for New Yorkers. Visit nyprojecthope.org or call 1-844-863-9314.

 

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Article by Lawrence I. Cohen

Laurence I. Cohen is a partner with Pike, Tuch & Cohen, LLP, a Bellmore, NY-based law firm.

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