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SuperShuttle drivers protest franchise terms they call “intolerable”

System affords them "a good living," says their Veolia-owned employer

shuttle drivers yovo

Driver Tony Koukou Yovo says he was fired for speaking out about working conditions at SuperShuttle.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Mohamed Cisse, like the other SuperShuttle van drivers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, routinely puts in seven-day weeks and 18-hour days, sometimes sleeping in his van at the airport.

But his work ethic stems not just from the need to support his family.

Because of a “franchise” arrangement that Cisse and the other drivers say is exploitative, they face a mountain of debt and pernicious weekly fees that pile up whether they are sick, business is slow, the airport is closed or – as happened to Cisse last year – their van is stolen and they cannot work.

Speaking at a recent driver protest outside the Baltimore headquarters of SuperShuttle’s corporate parent, Veolia Transportation, Cisse explained what happened in August after thieves stole his blue company-leased van from the parking lot of his Suitland apartment complex.

Unable to work for a month, Cisse still was expected to pay the multiple weekly fees owed by all drivers once they sign up to purchase the $35,000 SuperShuttle franchise over 10 years at 15% interest.

“They gave me no other vehicle,” said Cisse, 44, who is originally from Ivory Coast in West Africa.

He was told that he owed SuperShuttle $4,988.69.

Long List of Fees

Why the month delay to get his stolen van back? First, it took a week for police to locate the damaged vehicle. Then Cisse had to pay to have it towed. It took additional weeks for the insurance company (Marsh Insurance, which the drivers must use) to issue the check to cover the balance (after Cisse paid a $2,000 deductible).

Then, still more time passed while the repairs were completed.

“I kept calling. I was going crazy. I needed to get back to work. I knew they are charging me all these fees,” Cisse said.

What Cisse had to pay was his basic “franchise” repayment and all the other fees drivers typically owe: a van lease payment, two kinds of insurance, the 17.5% fee charged by the airport authority, a $500-per-week “system fee” to cover “mobile data terminals” used to transmit dispatch information, and other miscellaneous fees.

(One of Cisse’s “Weekly Vehicle Summary” sheets shows the many charges the drivers must pay.)

Mohamed Cisse often sleeps in his van at the airport so he won't miss a job. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Shuttle driver Mohamed Cisse often sleeps in his van at the airport, so he won’t miss a job. (Photo by Fern Shen)

When Cisse finally got his van back, it took him eight weeks just to pay off the debt, an especially daunting challenge at first because, he said, he had no money for gas, “not one penny.” (Drivers pay for their own gas and maintenance costs out-of-pocket. Cisse estimates his gas costs at $100 per day.)

“I asked the company to just lend me the money, give me a break on the gas, but they wouldn’t,” Cisse said.

The other drivers took up a collection to help him. Finally, for his ninth week of work after he got the van back, he got a paycheck: $101.

“No Way I Can Get Ahead”

The high fees, along with other alleged harsh working conditions, are at the heart of a dispute between drivers and European transportation giant Veolia, that has flared into lawsuits and unionization battles across the country.

Even when they are working, the drivers say, the cost of gas and these fees leave them with barely enough to scrape by and, on many weeks, they wind up owing the company money.

Several said it was not unusual to come away with just $200-$300 at the end of a week. Cisse said he has pushed it, sleeping in his van at the airport and, after a 110-hour week, made $500. The drivers take a number and wait their turn.

Part of the problem, the drivers say, is that the company has taken on more and more franchisees at BWI, though the amount of work available to them has not increased.

“There is no way I can get ahead,” Cisse said, speaking with The Brew after addressing about 40 people assembled earlier this week at the rally organized by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 and area activists, including Sharon Black of Baltimore People’s Assembly.

SuperShuttle drivers and their supporters protesting outside the Baltimore offices of Veolia Transportation, SuperShuttle's corporate parent. (Photo by Fern Shen)

SuperShuttle drivers and their supporters protesting outside the Baltimore offices of Veolia Transportation, SuperShuttle’s corporate parent. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Cisse and other drivers say they work 16- to 18-hour days, often sleeping at the holding center near BWI in order to be available for a job that could help them make their weekly payments to SuperShuttle and clear at least some profit.

“At the end of a week, you can go home with nothing,” said Tony Koukou Yovo, who said he was fired six weeks ago for participating in a November protest at BWI, complaining about broken dispatch equipment, for which drivers pay the $500-per-week “system fee.”

“These drivers do not know what they’re getting into when they sign these terrible agreements,” said Amy Millar, growth and strategic planning coordinator for Local 1994, noting that a lot of them are immigrants from West Africa. “Nobody would sign them if they did.”

Millar said it is next-to-impossible for drivers to find anyone willing to buy the franchises. Since they get no fee break for illnesses, they must hire a company relief driver to take over until they recover. They also get no health insurance benefits from SuperShuttle.

“This month, most of us will take money from our life savings to pay SuperShuttle,” sais Baba Saidykhan, originally from Gambia, calling the situation “intolerable.”

“A Good Living”

Dwight Kines, a vice president with Veolia Transportation on Demand, declined to get into specifics about Yovo’s and Cisse’s cases, but disputed the allegation that the drivers are exploited.

“I strongly disagree,” said Kines, in a phone interview with The Brew. Kines had figures that differed markedly from the drivers’.

Millar and the drivers said their weekly expenses (for gas and SuperShuttle fees and franchise repayment) routinely reach or exceed $2,000. Cisse’s “Weekly Driver Summary” from October showed about $1,630  for fees. He said keeping the gas tank filled for five days means another $500 or more that comes out of his pocket.

Kines, however, said their pre-gas fees average about $800.

“Our drivers are able to make a good living,” Kines said. He noted that the company has a program to help drivers sell their franchise and offers a couple of weeks credit on the fees each year if drivers wish to take a vacation.

“Can you name another franchisor – McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts – where this is allowed?” he asked. He also said that driver turnover has dropped to 15% in recent years.

“That reflects the fact that the vast majority of our drivers are successful,” he said, in an email. “When we operated under the employee model, turnover was over 150% – yes, 150% per year.”

Millar said that’s because they can’t find anyone to take over franchises with such onerous terms.

As for Yovo, who has worked for SuperShuttle since 2005, Kines declined to discuss the reasons for his firing except to say “We would never have terminated Tony for complaining or protesting about transponders. We work too hard to recruit and train good franchisees to terminate them for something so minor.”

The malfunctioning dispatch equipment, he said, has been replaced.

“Making Gross Profits More Stable”

The D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity last year took a close look at the implications of SuperShuttle’s shift from employees working for an hourly wage to a system of franchisees, whom they refer to as “independent business owners.”

“In doing so, SuperShuttle has shifted, in its own words, ‘hard to manage variable costs from the company’ to the drivers, making ‘gross profits more stable and predictable,’” the CPI story said, quoting from company documents.

SuperShuttle’s critics say its income from the driver franchises is more important than its customer business and franchise disclosure documents back that up. They show that in Maryland, about half of the company’s 2010 revenue ($4.9 million) came from franchise sales, while nearly all the rest came from reservations ($5.1 million), the CPI report said.

It’s part of a national trend toward “reclassification” of workers as contractors or franchisees. Companies benefit, but workers typically lose labor protections, and state and federal coffers suffer as well, since the company is exempt from paying unemployment and workers compensation.

Van drivers at BWI say working conditoins, and their "franchise" agreements with Veolia-owned SuperShuttle, are intolerable.

Van drivers at BWI say working conditoins, and their “franchise” agreements with Veolia-owned SuperShuttle, are intolerable. (Photo by Fern Shen)

In order to unionize, the SuperShuttle workers must prove to federal regulators that they are employees and not true franchisees, a legal hurdle that has produced mixed results in other states (failing in Dallas, succeeding in Denver.)

During the last five years, as BWI’s 100 shuttle drivers have sought better treatment (supported lately by the UFCW), they have also had mixed success.

They won a victory in August when the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation ruled that the shuttle drivers are employees, meaning the company must play state unemployment insurance. (The company, which denies that it misclassifies workers, has appealed that decision in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.)

The National Labor Relations Board, meanwhile, has ruled on the side of the company, determining that the drivers are not employees. The UFCW, in support of the drivers, has appealed.

The union has also been working with a Montgomery County legislator on a bill in Annapolis which would restrict BWI from entering into concession contracts with companies that don’t properly classify workers.

Millar said the drivers were polled an overwhelmingly supported union representation. Approximately 90% of the drivers at both BWI and the Washington Airport Authority (DCA and Dulles)have signed union authorization cards.

But, hoping to get some improved working conditions, the BWI drivers also asked SuperShuttle to negotiate with them as an association. “They wouldn’t do it,” Millar said.

“After I Start, I Find Out it is a Gimmick”

While the union pursues the various avenues and organizes a public awareness campaign, drivers who speak out believe that they are taking a risk.

Yovo said the reason given for his termination was a false accusation that he popped his van’s hood and blocked traffic during a November “caravan” protest at BWI. Even though he had paid his $35,000 fee in full, he now has no van to drive for the remaining two years on his contract and no unemployment compensation. The protesters said Yovo was one of two drivers fired for speaking out about conditions at SuperShuttle.

“We are with you,” said Patrick Benhene, a driver for six years who leads the group.. “I don’t know the repercussion. But I will not stop speaking the truth.”

He was looking out on a crowd that included Claire Evans, leader of the SuperShuttle drivers in DC/Virginia , and Cory McCray, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a candidate for Baltimore’s 45th District seat in the House of Delegates.

Cisse said he was happy to at the event, speak but eager to get back to work, which he did after the rally. LAter, speaking by phone, he talked about he had gotten hooked up with SuperShuttle.

After coming to the U.S. 23 years ago, he lived in New York City, moving to Maryland two years ago. A father of three (his children are 14, 10 and 10 months), he said the family moved to Prince George’s County a few years ago seeking more space and a better atmosphere for the children. (His wife’s work at a hair braiding salon has gotten them through hard times, he said: “Without her, we would be homeless.”)

For a time, he said, he remained in New York driving a cab, coming to be with his family on weekends.

“Then one day my daughter said, ‘Daddy, why don’t you come here all the time? Why do you only come on the weekends?’” he recalled. “That really hit me hard.” On the advice of a friend, he signed up with SuperShuttle, thinking it would be “like owning a business.”

“After I start, I find out it is a gimmick, it’s a fraud. It’s without value. You leave empty-handed,” he said. “Now, there is no way out.”

Cisse said he wishes he’d been able to see his troubles coming, but mostly he blames SuperShuttle for tricking him and other franchisees: “They know we don’t know the law.”

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  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    How can you fire someone who doesn’t work for you?

  • aconcernedmarylander

    I wonder if Veolia runs the Red Line will it make the operators buy the light rail car they run? *sarcasm*

    The shape of things to come.

  • cwals99

    Thanks for this great story.

    What this story does not relay…..and it is tremendously important……is that what is happening with these Super Shuttle drivers here in Maryland is simply an example of what the TPP—–Trans Pacific Trade Pact along with the Immigration Reform bill by the Senate will do to immigrant workers and domestic workers forced to compete for jobs and forced into the same work standards.

    Maryland is simply pretending TPP has already been implemented by allowing this situation to occur in the open. The same is happening with home health care immigrant labor, so this is widespread as TPP re-writes the US Constitution taking the WE THE PEOPLE out along with the BILL OF RIGHTS and gives global corporate tribunals the right to write laws that then remain law until the tribunal changes them. These laws state that a global corporation like French VEOLA can bring immigrant labor into the US and not have to follow US labor laws if it cuts into their corporate profits. So, VEOLA is bringing its African laborers to the US …..they thinking they would be working with US rights…..but are allowed to trap them in the same labor conditions as in Africa. The US looks the other way on enforcing labor laws as domestic workers needing work fall into the same labor contracts.

    TPP is policy that makes the US the same as China for US corporations coming back from overseas. It readies the case for sweat shop factories, labor abuses, housing tied to factories, and no environmental responsibilities. It is illegal and a COUP against the US Constitution and Super Shuttle only gives a glimmer of what things will look like if we allow them to pretend TPP can be passed as law.

    People need to WAKE UP!!!!!! You are silent as they hand our country to a global group controlled by global corporations ending our sovereignty as a nation and ending our US Constitution. We will not be citizens as we no longer will be able to elect politicians to change law covered in these treaties.

  • Claudlaw

    Thanks for running a story on the struggles of the Veolia operators. I think it’s so important to note that they are working under an increasingly common scenario in the US, where large corporations hire owner-operators to essentially function as employees. We live a culture that touts “entrepreneurship,” however, business models such have warped that dream. By using this kind of business model, companies such as Veolia avoid payroll taxes and paying into workers compensation, and pass on those responsibilities to their “workers.” They are quite literally, tax cheats that are passing on these costs to someone else. In Maryland, legislation was actually passed to protect workers in the construction industry (where employees are frequently misclassified as independent contractors). But construction is just one example, the practice is found elsewhere. FedEx Ground has had litigation in state and federal courts for years (similar to the litigation described in AACC Court) – because FedEx Ground drivers, who wear FedEx uniforms and have schedules ultimately determined by FedEx, yet pay for their trucks, their insurance and a host of other costs, are actually 1099-filing Independent Contractors.

  • ushanellore

    Entrepreneurship–USA-2014
    Dedicated to the van drivers at the BWI

    He owned his own business,
    he bought a franchise,
    he was excited and pleased,
    he thought he was wise,
    but he didn’t know his business

    was a wolf in disguise–

    until it began to swallow him whole,
    and in his pocket burned a big hole,
    until it took a terrible toll,
    and jumped on him with a monstrous growl,

    He walked around with misty eyes,
    living on burgers and oily french fries,
    eating those fast foods never on time,
    when it turned malignant –his business benign,
    growing tentacles of debt around his neck,
    he realized he was down on his luck
    and was never assured a weekly check.

    Who profited from this business benign?
    Who laughed all the way to an investment bank,
    while he ate and slept and washed in his van
    a van that cost him thirty five grand–
    thousands of dollars he could ill afford?

    He could have kicked up his feet

    on the Ivory Coast,
    if he had not indulged in idle boast,
    to his friends and relatives from Africa,
    that he’s a free man now in America–

    that he lives in the land of liberty–
    not a place of flibbertigibbeties–
    a place of great opportunities.

    To his friends and relatives

    from the Ivory Coast,
    he is master of his own design,
    he is building a business from the basement up,
    he is far from the madness of civil wars,
    of coups engineered in the night,
    of soldiers marching with machetes and guns,
    of plunder and pillage that racks the souls

    of civilians hiding in their own homes

    terrified of the ominous knocks–

    announcing rape and other such shocks,
    from the minions who goose step to the orders of

    the dictators of Africa–

    His friends and relatives from the Ivory Coast,
    are mystified–don’t understand–

    now his master is a supercomputer,
    in the hands of a clever plutocrat–
    a venturesome vulture on a global trot,
    with a net cast wide and razor sharp–
    knows how to bamboozle the ambitious lot
    of immigrants hungry for self owned jobs,
    with the promise of freedom from gobs and gobs
    of rules created by bureaucrats–

    His friends and relatives from the Ivory Coast–
    are mystified–don’t understand–

    why he owes hefty fees for this or for that,
    even when he’s down and out,
    even when he’s had a bout

    of crisis in his flow of life–
    why he’s not allowed to stop and brood

    over what went wrong with all his plans,
    over why when thieves have got his van
    and he’s not able to make a cent,
    he must still submit to the usury
    of the greedy plutocrat–
    who wants from him 15%

    as per his signed and sealed contract–
    it is an indisputable fact
    that if he balks at paying up,
    he’ll come home with an empty cup.

    He may not be an employee
    but he can still be canned–the legal clout,

    no matter how much he protests and shouts,
    belongs in the pages sacrosanct–
    of the signed, sealed and sold contract–
    belongs with lawyers in the constant act,
    of laying impregnable clever traps–
    for the unsuspecting labor force–
    befuddled and sometimes overwhelmed,
    by the feudal lords at the very top–
    who hatch the plots to gouge and squeeze

    the folks they think are hapless sops –

    Insurance one, insurance two,
    money for payroll tax,

    money for gas–

    for the van– supposedly

    a golden goose–
    in reality a golden clunk,

    for workers comp
    more money and then
    more “good news”
    money for the airport too
    plus a systems fee–

    They pluck at him
    like he were a money tree,

    instead, if they charged him a wisdom fee,
    he’ll know better than to stick around–
    he’ll be back again on the Ivory Coast–
    How much worse can life there be?

    Much worse say his cousins and friends
    who want him to wire to their eager banks–

    the left overs from his meager accounts.

    Yet, as he sleeps in his van,

    he can’t help but dream

    that poor as a church mouse

    but happy as a lark,
    he is lying under some swaying palms,
    back again on the Ivory Coast,

    drinking cocoa out of the land,
    chomping on bananas

    with his cousins and friends–
    on silvery beaches letting the sand

    tickle his feet and run through his hand..

    O entrepreneur! You haven’t a clue
    when you signed on the dotted line
    and with a global company you aligned–
    by the new economy you were bought,
    like a dolphin in a net you are caught–
    bleeding into the waters blue,
    as an ingredient for a marvelous stew–
    in a dish of gold on the table top–
    of the ever agile plutocrat…

    Usha Nellore

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