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Drivers Spar With Airport Taxi Company Over Fleet Reduction

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 photo, travelers wait in a security line at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in Seattle.

Taxi drivers at Sea-Tac Airport are upset over what they're calling a "pay-to-play scam." The company they contract with, Eastside For Hire, has asked drivers to subsidize voluntary buyouts to try and reduce the airport fleet.

The company sent a notice to drivers earlier this month giving them the option to either leave or stay and pay to compensate those who did leave. The notice said drivers who stayed would be asked to pay up to $9,000 each.

The move caused drivers to hold a one-day strike last week, backed by Teamsters Local 117.

Eastside For Hire General Manager Samatar Guled said reducing the fleet was a response to drivers who said they wanted more work as competition from Uber and Lyft eats into their trips.

"We wanted the people who are leaving to get something out of the deal. And that is what created the controversy, unfortunately," Guled said.

He also noted that drivers who stay will actually be asked to pay closer to $4,100 instead of the full $9,000.

The notice also stipulated that those who did not agree to pay would risk getting cut from the fleet themselves. Those cuts and the initial payments are expected to happen next month, though Guled said things could change.

Driver Suldan Mohamed took part in the strike, saying he's not willing to pay the fee. He said he was told he was one of the drivers who would be asked to leave without compensation.

"They're asking people to pay money we don't have," Mohamed said, noting that drivers have to pay other fees to work at the airport.

In 2016, Eastside For Hire won an exclusive contract with the Port of Seattle to provide taxi services at the airport. That contract expires next year.

Several drivers testified about this recent dispute at a Port Commission meeting Tuesday. A few commissioners expressed concern about the company's move and the contract in general.

Commissioner Stephanie Bowman said she wants to meet with drivers May 1 to get to the bottom of things.

"I want this to be drivers. I want there to be Sikh drivers. I want there to be African drivers. You guys figure out who it is," Bowman said. "I don't want there to be any union representatives, nothing personal. I don't want to hear from Eastside. I don't want to hear from Lyft."

Commissioners have already met with representatives for Eastside For Hire.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.