As Manhattan was in the midst of morning rush hour on Monday, Feb. 5, Douglas Schifter, a livery driver with 40 years experience, drove a rented Nissan sedan up to the eastern gate of City Hall and shot himself in the head. Before he took his life, however, Schifter, 61, left behind a lengthy note on Facebook that called out Uber, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg for destroying his livelihood.
All three politicians played a decisive role in the deregulation of the taxi and livery industry in New York, making it harder for drivers like Schifter to earn a living. Cuomo and Bloomberg pushed more hacks onto the streets, while De Blasio has so far buckled under pressure from Uber and its competitors, refusing to place restrictions on app-based car services.
As with all taxi and livery operations in New York, rideshare vehicles are subject to inspections three times a year. Their drivers undergo background checks and drug testing. But over a five year period, from when Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013 to today, the number of vehicles for hire in New York City has more than doubled to 107,000. Predatory pricing from the likes of Uber and its nearest rival, Lyft, has driven down wages across the industry. More and more drivers are competing for scarcer and scarcer fares at rates locked in a downward spiral.
We spoke with Douglas Schifter’s brother, George, about his sibling’s life and death, and his hope that Douglas’ suicide will lead to greater regulation of the industry. Both Schifters were born and raised in Brooklyn, although George, a retired Air Force veteran, currently resides in Florida. When we spoke, George Schifter vehemently defended his brother against Mayor de Blasio’s claim that Douglas had an “underlying mental challenge.”
‘My brother believed in the difference between right and wrong, and his mission was to share that with his peers and those officials that would listen.’
“Until [de Blasio] goes and fits into my brother’s shoes, he doesn’t have the right to say that, does he?” George Schifter said. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for concision and clarity.
Peter Rugh: Maybe you could tell me a little bit about your brother and what kind of person he was.
George Schifter: He was brilliant. He’s been brilliant all his life. At the age of four, he could read completely through the New York Times paper front-to-back, every word. He was an extremely knowledgeable individual and if he didn’t know something he would put his mind to it and he would learn. Douglas was strong-willed and his greatest passion aside from his career was cooking from different cultures. Learning how to cook using different techniques and foods was something that he enjoyed.
He seems to have taken a great pride in his profession.
What is it about it that he loved?
The people. This is probably the most common thing among the drivers out there, aside from the ability to — at one time — earn a decent paycheck. Most of them like the social aspect of it, meeting different people throughout their work.
What sort of toll did the deregulation of the taxi industry in New York and the introduction of Uber take on his ability to earn a living?
Douglas, throughout the last 14 years or so, has endured lots of physical demands which took a toll on his body. He was trying to play catch up on a down-slide of the industry. And I know he’s not alone. That’s been his cause, to try and get people — the officials — to go ahead and understand the ramifications of their decision to flood the market [with ride-for-hire vehicles], to allow it to happen, in a state that has a tremendous capability of dealing out legislation, taxation and regulation, of making laws that can and do force the right thing to be done. In this case, they dropped the ball.
Douglas tried to make people aware that those officials, they failed. They failed to do what’s right, failed to consider the driver, the business owner and the public. There’s nothing out there that inhibits companies like Uber or Lyft from doing what they want.
There’s a few people out there that have been hurt. There’s a few people out there that are at risk right now as we speak. And the ability to go ahead and flood the market has cut everybody’s paycheck down, except the owners of those companies. Even the car groups that are out there right now — the owner-operators of the medallions — they have taken a big hit. The city should find a way to get companies like Uber and Lyft that are flooding the market to take the money that they make from that and pay off those medallions.
There seems to be this idea that what’s good for the market is generally good for everybody, but I think your brother’s case really speaks to the ramifications of what can happen when you allow an industry like this to go unregulated.
Over the last few years, Douglas has struggled so much. He lived in his vehicle, and he reached a point where he wasn’t even earning enough money to pay his bills. My brother’s been a homeowner for 15 years and up until this October had never missed a payment. And his house was his castle. It was basically stolen from him because of deregulation, the city not being able to handle a bully coming in and saying, “This is the way it is”.
‘ I know that if change comes, his sacrifice will not be in vain.’
This is our city. This is the city I grew up in. I have three brothers, of which one has now left us. And I can’t believe that — and it’s not just New York, I mean it’s everywhere — that this one company just came in and said, “There’s nothing you can do.”
There’s no reason why new laws can’t be enacted, or old laws enforced when it comes to the safety of the public. There’s no excuse that the TLC [Taxi and Limousine Commission], the Governor’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, the City Council can’t put it together.
The mayor has said that your brother had underlying mental issues. Do you want to respond to him?
Give me one person that doesn’t have mental issues. You can say that about everybody. If he has a clinical degree that affords him the ability to make a diagnosis from a few letters, then let him do so. Until he goes and fits into my brother’s shoes, he doesn’t have the right to say that, does he? Does it carry any weight that he would say that?
No, it seems like he might have been trying to undermine your brother’s —
He couldn’t do that if he tried. You can’t undermine the truth. Our mayors going back to Bloomberg and on, they have undermined the confidence of the public by letting people starve, by not standing up to Uber or Lyfts’ lobbyists.
My brother was a genius and he hurt. Whether or not he could ever be diagnosed as having a mental illness, it’s too late for them to prove. When they make that kind of a statement, it’s just to turn off those people that were listening. But there are those that know what my brother wrote about is true because they experience it day in and day out, they suffer.
Are you confident the response your brother’s death will lead to change? Are there specific changes you’d like to see come out of this?
There has to be fairness for all. And it has to start with the Joe that’s out there working the hours and pounding his feet, trying to stay safe and meet certain standards of safety and dignity and cleanliness for the public, so that the public can use their services. Once the drivers are taken care of, everything else rolls uphill: the money flows into the car groups, the money flows out for the taxes, the money flows out for the licensing and the registration, and it supports the system.
Give people the potential to go ahead and earn enough money to feed their wives, feed their husbands, feed their kids, send them off to school, keep a roof over their heads, then everything will flow uphill. Until that starts to happen again the system is going to stay broken. And it’s not just in New York, this is around the world.
One thing your brother wrote that struck me was his call to “wake up and resist.” Are you hopeful that more drivers will start standing up and speaking out?
It’s not so much standing up and speaking out because most of them don’t have the time to do that. They’re all very tired. What officials need to do is get together with the owners, operators and leaders within drivers’ organizations, and take a look at what they did in certain cities around the world to keep Uber out. And while I’m not stipulating that Uber drivers need to be kicked out of the city, [elected leaders] need to try and find rules to help regulate their cities, the livelihood of their own constituents.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? This is just a terrible tragedy.
Well, the tragedy would be if there was no change to benefit the men and women who are out there driving day-in, day-out, only to come home with a pittance of what they used to. My brother believed in the difference between right and wrong, and his mission was to share that with his peers and those officials that would listen. Legislation needs to be made so that the playing field is fair for everyone, so that the environment in which we all work, travel, play and rest is safe. And that’s what Douglas wanted.
My brother was not mentally ill, he was hindered by the officials and their lack of policy, or failure to enforce existing policies. They got beat or bought. That’s it, that’s the bottom line. And they knew what would happen, I’m sure there’s many of them that did. They have an opportunity to make a change, to make a difference, to really impact the public, to impact those people that are suffering.
My brother — he’s better off now than he was before and I know that if change comes, his sacrifice will not be in vain.
Photo: A photograph of driver Douglas Schifter rests on a chair during a Feb. 12 meeting of the City Council’s new Committee on For-Hire Vehicles. Credit: John McCarten/NYC Council.