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Driving a wheelchair-friendly cab once paid a living wage, but no more

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Jeanette, a Radio Cab taxi driver, helps  Sarge, a Vietnam veteran, board her specially equipped taxi via the wheelchair lift. Jeanette loves her job as a Radio Cab taxi driver, but she’s going broke doing it.

She drives a 2004 Dodge Sprinter fitted with a special lift to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs. It costs more to operate, but it’s satisfying work.

At least it was until this spring, when Portland opened its heavily regulated taxi market to hundreds of new competitors, mostly amateurs turning private cars into do-it-yourself taxis hailed by smartphone.

“I had to borrow money today for fuel,” Jeanette says, picking up a reporter and photographer seeking a glimpse of the life of a wheelchair-accessible-taxi driver.

Jeanette asked that her last name not be used because she’s been assaulted and was a victim of identity theft. But she pours her heart out to passengers.

Shortly after noon, she gets her first call, a woman who just bought groceries at the Walmart on Southeast 82nd Avenue.

“I always call this one; I know their number by heart,” says Brandy Mason, after Jeanette helps load several grocery bags into her spacious van.

Mason says she uses only Radio Cab after a bad experience with another company. “I called one and the lady was really rude and snappy to me,” she says.

Jeanette, who is part driver, part social worker, gets lots of calls on the first and 15th of each month when people’s checks come in and they can afford to buy food.

Mason isn’t disabled but doesn’t have a car. Portland has long required taxi companies to equip 10 percent to 20 percent of their fleets with wheelchair lifts, which cost an average of about $50,000. But Jeanette has to take the calls that come in, whether from wheelchair users or not, to get paid.

She drops off Mason and her partner in the Brooklyn neighborhood, helping them carry grocery bags to the door. For a half hour’s work, she collects a $13.10 fare and a $5 tip.

En route to Walmart, a second call had come in from someone in Beaverton who needed to get to Hillsboro. As Jeanette explained why that wouldn’t work for her, the caller hung up mid-sentence. The caller could be one of many people who rail against bad taxi service, though it’s not Jeanette’s fault.

At 1:40 p.m., her first call comes in from a wheelchair user. Two Vietnam vets want a ride after drinks at the Candlelight lounge in the Montavilla neighborhood. Radio Cab boasts that it’s veteran-owned; it was started by vets after World War II.

Jeanette pulls up, opens her back door and pushes some buttons. A lift slowly emerges and drops down to the street level. She rolls the man in the wheelchair, who says to call him Sarge, onto the lift. She punches more buttons and the lift rises to move Sarge into the rear of the truck. Jeanette re-enters the truck from the passenger side to strap down Sarge’s chair and seat belt.

Sarge says he uses taxis all the time and never has to wait long. Less than half an hour? Yes, he says, a man of few words.

In the passenger seat next to Jeanette, his buddy talks of his days as a sniper, bragging about how many Vietnamese he killed and complaining that Vietnamese are now taking good jobs from Portlanders. Jeanette listens politely to his racist rant, thanking him for his service.

When the truck arrives at a bar downtown near Voodoo Doughnut, Sarge decides he doesn’t want to drink any more and wants to go home. So Jeanette takes him on a second trip to an assisted living center in East Portland, repeating the drill and then wheeling him to the front door. For what amounts to two rides, Sarge pays a $34.50 fare plus a $5.50 tip.

Radio Cab has contracts with hospitals and other institutions, which help pay the bills and assure fuller use of the wheelchair-accessible vehicles. City officials and others involved in charting Portland’s path to a deregulated taxi market complain that takes the vehicles out of service for customers calling for cabs. But Portland taxi companies say only 1 percent to 2 percent of their calls come from people needing wheelchair lifts, so they need other customers to cover their costs.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jeanette, a Radio Cab taxi driver, helps carry groceries for Brandy Mason, behind, to her house after picking Mason up from Walmart four miles away.At 3:23 p.m., Jeanette gets a call from OHSU, to pick up empty blood platelet boxes and return them to the Red Cross in North Portland. Navigating OHSU’s cramped parking lot and waiting for 18 boxes to be carted to the curbside and then loaded into the truck takes awhile. Red Cross pays the standard $18 for what amounts to two taxi rides, one for pickup and one for delivery. But at 4:45 p.m., Jeanette is still stuck in a long line of rush-hour traffic trying to get onto Interstate 405 and leave downtown.

“This is when it doesn’t pay,” Jeanette says.

En route, she gets a call for a wheelchair lift at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center on the west side. Jeanette’s not allowed to accept it because she doesn’t know how long it will take to get to the Red Cross and back. Some cabbies do accept such calls, known as “stacking.” Some cabbies get greedy and want to line up their next call, she says, but that results in long waits.

“I get that cabbies historically, globally, don’t always have the best reputation,” Jeanette says. “Are we evil? No.”

A half hour later, St. Vincent is still trying to arrange a wheelchair lift taxi. When Jeanette finishes unloading the 18 boxes at the Red Cross and radios in to take the call, it’s too late; someone else finally got to it.

At 5:45 p.m., Jeanette picks up a frail elderly man at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Northwest Portland. He’s frazzled from a long day at the hospital, so she offers to put some soothing music on for him. Dropping him off at his single-room-occupancy hotel downtown, Jeanette rushes to open the door for him. “Grab my shoulder,” Jeanette says as she escorts him inside.

Uber reported last week that its Portland cabbies are taking home an average of about $20 an hour so far. But they take only passengers with smartphones and credit cards.

“They’re taking the cream, basically,” Jeanette says. “They’re taking the stuff that’s easy.”

She likes serving passengers with greater needs. But after six hours, she hasn’t come close to grossing the $130 to $150 she needs each shift to pay expenses, let alone take any money home.

Jeanette has cut her expenses since Uber and Lyft entered the market in April, now sharing a one-bedroom home with three other adults.

The job used to pay a living wage, Jeanette says, but not now. She’s not sure how much longer she can hang on.