An Immigrant’s Fare Fight
Robel Berhan steers his blue and orange Union Cab with its empty backseat to Hotel Lucia on Southwest Broadway. Nothing. He heads to the Marriott. A line of other cabs blocks his way. He knows a guy at the Nines who sometimes helps him out. It’s nearly 7 pm on a Wednesday, and Berhan needs a customer.
Cars jam the Nines’ loading zone on Southwest Morrison Street, so Berhan double parks his Prius.
“What’s up?” a doorman calls out as Berhan rolls down the window.
“You have any customer?” Berhan asks.
“No,” the doorman says. He smacks his gum, impatient.
“Uber and Lyft?”
“Oh yeah,” the doorman says. “Big time.” He says eight people in the past few hours have jumped into Uber cars.
“Eight taxi could have had a fare,” Berhan says as he pulls away. “I bet they were all going to the airport.” That’s the fare every cab driver wants—about $35, plus tip.
Berhan, 41, came from Ethiopia nearly two decades ago and has driven a cab in Portland since 2009. For years he got by driving five days a week in 12-hour shifts. Now he’s thinking he might have to work seven days a week if he’s to have any hope of covering his costs. “I don’t think I can rob people,” Berhan says, “so I have to do something.”
The city’s taxi companies report a drop in business since Uber and Lyft rolled in, and that’s hit Portland’s Ethiopian community like no other. Immigrants from Ethiopia make up about one-third of taxi drivers in the city, based on interviews with cab drivers and company managers.
Ethiopians run two of the city’s six major taxi companies, Green Transportation and Union Cab. At driver-owned Union Cab, four of every five drivers come from Ethiopia, and managers say revenues are off by as much as 30 percent.
Berhan owns his taxi and likes being his own boss. Quitting would be a last resort.
“I’m here to fight,” Berhan says. “I’m here to stay. I don’t care if I make a dollar a day, I’m not going to stop. This is my baby. This is my company.”
Berhan circles the block, and when he pulls up at the Nines again, he sees a place to park. Eventually, two businessmen from Ventura, Calif., hop in, headed for the Ringside Steakhouse. The two didn’t know Uber was available in Portland—one of them, whose company sells shoes, says he would have hailed a taxi anyway.
“It’s downtown and it’s local,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The fare is $7.10, and the businessmen give Berhan an extra $2—generous as tips go. He heads to the Hilton, where a month earlier he could land a fare in 10 minutes. He waits an hour and half for his next customer.
Before April, Berhan says he brought in $900 a week before expenses. He says he now brings in between $400 and $500 a week. It’s barely enough to cover his $350 “kitty”—the weekly charge to drive for Union Cab. That doesn’t include gas and maintenance.
Other Union Cab drivers say their wait for fares has gotten longer—as much as three hours—compared to 20 minutes before Uber and Lyft arrived in April.
The impact of Uber and Lyft across all taxi companies isn’t yet known—and it’s far too early to know the long-term effects. The city has a task force that is supposed to see how Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services have affected the cab industry. The task force hasn’t yet requested any financial data from taxi companies.
“Fares, profits and incomes—those are sensitive pieces of information,” says Bryan Hockaday, policy adviser to City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the city’s Transportation Bureau. “We’re going to have to come up with a more creative way of understanding the working conditions of drivers.”
Radio Cab says dispatch calls are down only 3 percent overall, while Broadway Cab, the other big taxi company, says its calls are down by 12 percent. But calls are only part of the business that drivers get. Drivers and company managers tell WW that—after taking into account hotel stops and airport rides, for example—fares and tips are down by 20 percent to 50 percent.
Berhan thinks he may no longer be able to afford the $482-a-month car payment on his cab. Despite his determination to stay in the taxi business, he says: “I may have to stop helping my family until I make it again. Start life from square one, just like 17 years ago, when I arrived here in the U.S.A. Except I wouldn’t do 7-Eleven again.”
He could also join Uber or Lyft, where many drivers have been able to earn a living. Berhan says drivers he knows who work for ride-hailing companies work longer and make less money than he does—something he cannot risk. “At the end of the day,” he says of his friends, “they’re leaving with nothing.”
About 1,400 Ethiopian immigrants live in the Portland metro area, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, as reported by the Population Research Center at Portland State University. The Ethiopian community itself numbers 4,000 to 5,000, says Djimet Dogo, director of Africa House, a center in Southeast Portland that serves recent refugees. Dogo estimates Ethiopians make up the city’s second-largest African-born population, after Somalis.
Dogo says many immigrants, despite their professional backgrounds, gravitate here to jobs as home care workers, parking lot attendants and taxi drivers. “The [taxi] industry is very important to the community,” Dogo says. “Even professionals here who get laid off and cannot work, they can always go back to cab driving.”
Berhan usually drinks his coffee at Starbucks, but he also meets other Ethiopian drivers at Enat Kitchen on North Killingsworth Street, known for its buna, Ethiopian coffee prepared in a ceremony, heavily sweetened and poured from a clay pot.
The drivers have formed their own community, based on their nationality and shared profession.
“Think about it—you know nobody,” says Teddy Ayele, a Sassy’s Cab Co. driver who immigrated in 2007. “You’re new to the country, the culture, everything. That’s just you. It’s an ocean. You’re in the middle of an ocean just by yourself. How would you feel?”
Berhan first came to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 1996 to work temporarily as a translator. Four days after he returned home, Berhan was robbed and beaten at a club in Addis Ababa. Berhan says he’s superstitious, and he took the attack as a sign he needed to leave. He immigrated to Seattle and worked not only at a 7-Eleven but also at Dunkin Donuts, as a mailman, and in a chicken processing plant where he loaded frozen birds on a production line. (Berhan says he earned $6.66 an hour and quit the job because his wage was “the devil’s number.”)
He moved to Portland in 2008 to help out at his brother’s restaurant and started driving for Broadway Cab. He liked the work but came to resent the $450 kitty. “They keep oppressing you,” Berhan says. “That’s why we started to create Union Cab.”
Berhan fell in behind Kedir Wako, another Broadway driver who sought to start his own cab company. Another Ethiopian immigrant, Tesfaye Aleme, had won approval for Green Transportation in 1998, but there had been no new permits issued since then. Wako spent four years trying to get City Hall to OK his new company. Radio and Broadway cabbies jammed the streets around City Hall in protest, but then-Mayor Sam Adams backed Union Cab, which had support from the Oregon AFL-CIO.
The City Council approved Union Cab in 2012 and awarded it 50 taxi permits.
Wako says he lost taxi-driver friends over Union Cab, and many blame him for the ease with which the city welcomed Uber and Lyft. “They think Uber comes because of me,” he says. “Because I opened that door.”
Union Cab and Green Transportation are considering reducing the kitty they charge drivers.
Radio Cab general manager Steve Entler says his company is considering limiting the number of drivers on the streets at one time so that those who are working earn a living wage. Broadway Cab is rethinking how it schedules its drivers.
“We need some cabs that aren’t full-time cabs, to be honest,” says Raye Miles, Broadway Cab president.
Wako says Union Cab has no plans to cut back on drivers. He wants to get Union Cab on Curb and Flywheel, apps for summoning traditional taxis. (Broadway and Radio are already on Curb.)
Wako also wants to do more marketing of Union Cab and sign more contracts with hotels, hospitals and nursing homes to guarantee steady business.
“Instead of fighting with Uber and the city, I just want to prepare myself for how to exist,” he says. “I don’t want to whine every day at the City Council. It doesn’t help. It cost us too much already.”
Despite his determination to fight through the financial challenge Uber and Lyft have posed, Berhan says it’s coming at an emotional cost for him. For years, Berhan supported his mother, his sister and her three children. He says he’s been relying on a niece—who he helped put through college—for help, which is difficult for him to accept.
“I used to do all the support,” he says. “Now I’m needing support.”