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Taxi and Rideshare Drivers Finally See Light With Debt Relief During Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the taxi and rideshare industry, leaving many drivers facing crushing debt with little income. But new debt relief programs in places like New York City offer a lifeline for struggling drivers.

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Years of Rising Debt for Taxi Drivers

For decades, driving a iconic yellow taxi in New York City was seen as a pathway to the middle class. The city issued a limited number of taxi medallions – permits that allow drivers to own and operate cabs. With supply capped, medallion values soared over $1 million by 2014. Many drivers took out huge loans to buy medallions, expecting to pay them back through years of steady fares.

But the emergence of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft dramatically increased competition. As rider demand split between taxis and rideshares, medallion values plunged. By 2019, medallions traded for around $200,000 – leaving many drivers hundreds of thousands in debt.

Then came COVID-19. Ride volumes dropped further as people stayed home. Many drivers saw income fall 80-90%, while still facing those big medallion loans. Drivers struggled with payments, and feared losing everything. “It was hard to feed your family,” said longtime NYC driver Herld Valere.

New Debt Relief Programs Offer Aid

With drivers in crisis, New York City stepped in. Officials, working with lenders and the taxi union, crafted a debt relief program for owners facing extreme hardship.

The centerpiece is restructuring medallion loans down to a maximum balance of $200,000. A $30,000 grant covers part of that, with the city backing the remaining $170,000 in case of default. Interest rates also fall to around 5%.

For a driver who owed $600,000 before, their balance drops by almost 70%. And their monthly payment could fall from around $4,500 to approximately $1,000.

This program aims to aid over 3,000 medallion owners in New York. The application process opened in September, with the city urging drivers to apply quickly for maximum relief.

Pandemic Assistance Arrives for Rideshare Drivers Too

Rideshare drivers faced similar struggles during COVID-19. With ride volumes falling, many saw incomes plunge as much as 80-90%.

Normally these drivers lack access to unemployment and other safety net programs, since rideshare companies classify them as independent contractors. But federal pandemic legislation opened assistance like enhanced unemployment benefits and paid sick leave to gig workers and contractors impacted by COVID-19.

These measures offered a temporary lifeline – but still left many drivers struggling. And when pandemic programs expired, drivers lost that vital support.

Rideshare companies offered some assistance, like temporary sick pay for drivers diagnosed with COVID-19. But tests were hard to come by early on. And balancing safety with income remained an agonizing choice for many already on the financial edge.

Relief Programs a “Lifesaver” for Drivers

While more limited than the NYC taxi debt relief package, pandemic aid represented an unprecedented lifeline for struggling rideshare contractors.

Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance calls their debt relief plan a “lifesaver and historic” measure. For drivers like Herld Valere facing extreme debt, the program offers hope of stability during an incredibly challenging time.

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified long-standing issues around driver income stability and access to aid programs. But new efforts like debt relief and unemployment assistance helped many stay afloat when they had nowhere else to turn.

For a group of essential workers long denied their fair share of support, even temporary relief buoyed both finances and spirits during the pandemic crisis. As Bhairavi Desai said, for taxi drivers the debt program is “lifesaving” – a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

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