What makes a taxi medallion so valuable

The transportation industry lost more than 250,000 jobs and forced workers to the brink of starvation

"The Department of Transportation can play a central role in this, by implementing President Biden's infrastructure vision and creating millions of well-paid jobs," Buttigieg told lawmakers in his hearing.

The latest stimulus package passed by Congress during the Trump administration provided $ 15 billion in wage protection for U.S.-based airlines, with the caveat that 32,000 airline employees would get back to work by the end of March. Palma was not hired as a contractor for American Airlines.

He has since lost his apartment because he cannot afford the monthly rent of $ 1,125. He survives on food stamps and receives $ 275 a week in unemployment, which is just enough to cover the rent on a room in a house. He says he counts every penny and goes shopping in the supermarket on the expired grocery island.

"That's the only way I can eat. It's cheaper, almost half as expensive, sometimes even more," said Palma, who immigrated from Nicaragua 30 years ago. "I'm keeping it as long as I can keep it so I can wait for my next check for the grocery stamps."

Palma doesn't have a car, which makes it harder to get food and work.

"I can't even take it to the food banks because I don't have a car. Every time I'm looking for a job I have to walk so many kilometers," said Palma. "Sometimes I can't even use public transport. I need the money. I need every penny I can save."

And the bills keep coming back. Palma has asthma and a heart condition that earned him a $ 12,000 hospital bill. His current medication costs him about $ 300 a month, and he has student loans - which brings him nearly $ 20,000 in debt.

"It's too much money and it's hard for me. It will take me years to get rid of the bill - years," he said.

Just this week Palma received a letter from his former employer, Eulen America, inviting him to an interview in a new position. However, the letter states that the position is "part time and hours are not guaranteed".

Taxi drivers also hurt

Gerson Fernandes has been driving a yellow cab in New York City for 21 years. He has a taxi medallion or a small plate with an identification number on the hood of his taxi, with which he can work like in an independent business and with a driver. He bought his for $ 245,000 in 2003 and is still paying it out monthly. But since the pandemic started, he has not been able to afford the $ 3,000 monthly payment.

Even before Covid-19 hit the world, traditional taxi drivers were struggling in New York City. At one point, taxi medallions were priced at over $ 1 million, but that collapsed when drivers for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft flooded the market. In 2018, nine taxi drivers faced the debt they had taken on to buy a medallion. Committed suicide.

And then the pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic, yellow cab drivers fell 90% and ridesharing fell 85%, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which analyzed driver data from the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission.

"We lost a lot of customers," said Fernandes, who is originally from Bombay, India. "I am sad that such a robust industry has been spoiled or has really gone down and it's not right."

The yellow taxi is synonymous with New York City. Fernandes worked 12-hour shifts and picked up dozens of customers. Today he says he's lucky enough to get four or five. He spends his 8 hour shifts waiting for customers at LaGuardia Airport.

"Those days when you could afford to buy a house and pay or pay the mortgage are all the money, but now it's a shame - it's difficult to pay," Fernandes said.

He said he received unemployment benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for several months when New York City closed, but stopped collecting after returning to work.

Fernandes says he has seen a slight increase in customers since the peak of the pandemic, but not enough to keep him healthy. He hopes that New York Mayor Bill De Blasio will introduce lease forgiveness on his lease on a taxi medallion. He already owes more than $ 10,000 - money he doesn't have.

"I'm trying my best, but how much can you try?" said Fernandes. "What can you do? [I have] very limited resources."

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Gerson Fernandes' first name was misspelled.