SAN DIEGO - Taxi drivers in San Diego work a median of 70 hours a week to cover the costs of leasing their vehicles and other expenses, and earn a median salary of $4.45 an hour including tips, according to a study released Friday.
The study, conducted at 25 taxi stands around the city by the Center on Policy Initiatives and San Diego State University, also found drivers were being fired or threatened for raising safety concerns and their vehicles were inadequately maintained.
"The taxi system is unfair and unsafe," SDSU professor Jill Esbenshade, the study's lead author, said. "We found serious defects in a transportation service that is crucial for many people and businesses in San Diego, particularly the tourism industry."
The 12-page report, "Driven to Despair: A Survey of San Diego Taxi Drivers," was based on a survey of 331 taxi drivers in March and April by SDSU researchers.
According to the report, nearly 90 percent of the licensed taxi drivers surveyed rented their vehicles from an individual or business, and usually leased them by the week.
City permits, which cost about $3,000, are re-sold on the open market without regulation, which results in drivers paying high lease prices and being blocked from becoming owner-operators, the study found. Some drivers lease the cars and taxi permits for unregulated weekly prices, and often without written contracts.
"Without any regulation of the relationship between owners and drivers, the drivers face poverty earnings and working conditions that would be illegal if they were employees," CPI Research Director Peter Brownell said. "Other major cities, such as Chicago and New York, require a standard lease agreement and guarantee drivers' rights."
Researchers also found that only a few drivers had health insurance or workers' compensation insurance.
Drivers keep only about 30 cents of each dollar collected, including tips, according to the report.
Drivers also told the researchers they had to hide warning lights from customers, or pay for repairs because the heavily used vehicles were not maintained, according to the report.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner proposed moving taxi industry administration from the Metropolitan Transit System to the city, and the City Council will vote June 10 on a budget that includes his proposed funding for the first step in reforming the system, officials said.
"Public safety really is at risk if we allow this situation to continue," said Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who drove a taxi 30 years ago.