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Lily Sosa, Chicago city taxi driver

Laurenne Wallman/MEDILL

Lily Sosa, a Chicago taxi driver

To make ends meet, more women turn to driving a taxi

by Laurenne Wallman
June 09, 2011

Taxi waiting lot, O'Hare International Airport

Laurenne Wallman/MEDILL

The taxi waiting lot at O'Hare International Airport

On a Tuesday afternoon the taxi waiting lot at O’Hare International Airport was packed with hundreds of drivers waiting for their turn to pull up to the arrival terminal and snag a good fare.

Groups of men gathered under spots of shade to avoid the 103-degree afternoon heat. Others hung out around one car, talking and eating to pass the time. Off to the side, another group of men congregated for an afternoon prayer.

“The woman drivers,” one male taxicab driver said, “don’t get out of the cars and talk. They stay inside.”  

But in that sizzling hot weather, K.C., a 50-year-old woman from Nepal, took a break from sitting in her taxi to grab a cold bottle of water. Under the shade of the umbrella she held, K.C. clicked the alarm on her key chain in search of her taxi, lost temporarily in a sea of waiting cabs.

After she and her husband lost two businesses – a Subway franchise in 2007 and a Dunkin Donuts franchise in 2009 – K.C. now spends 14 hours a day driving a taxi to make ends meet.

“I lost everything I had,” K.C. said. “Now I have to drive a cab.”

Lily Susa, a 30-year-old Chicago native, is another woman who had a regular nine-to-five before she started driving taxis.

“Before this I got a college degree and I worked in communications,” Susa said. "It was a start and then I got laid off a couple of times.”

“I have to make money,” Susa said. Her father has been driving a taxi for 21 years, so in a sense, it was like joining the family business.

K.C. and Susa are among what appears to be a growing number of women in Chicago who, for economic reasons, have joined the male-dominated and sometimes dangerous business of driving a taxi. Taxicab companies declined to provide numbers or estimates, but drivers said it’s a trend they’ve noticed since the start of the bruising 2008-09 recession.

“Now there are a lot of female drivers all doing it for the same reason,” James Frimpoing, a taxi cab driver, said. “They were all doing something else,” Frimpoing said.

Frimpoing’s story isn’t different from the women he speaks about. He started driving a taxi 16 months ago after losing his job as a software engineer.

“Many people who have lost their jobs have gotten into this business,” K.C. said. “Over half of my class for taxi-driving at Harold Washington College lost their business.”

K.C. started driving a taxi in March 2010 to try to make enough money to afford her home and support her family.

“It’s been good to me,” K.C. of her cab driving experience thus far. “But I still can’t afford to send my son to college here. He goes to school in India.”

She and her husband lease taxis from Yellow Cab Chicago. And although K.C. has been able to make ends meet so far, it has not been easy. She pays $600 per week to lease her cab, plus $60 to $70 to fill up her gas tank every day. But if you want to make it work in these times, said K.C., “you can do it.”

“If you have a good education, it’s not difficult to drive a taxi,” K.C. said. “And customers usually tell me how to get somewhere. But if we both don’t know, I use the GPS.”

For K.C. the benefit of choosing her own hours has been helpful not because she can go home whenever she wants, but because she can drive as much as she wants.

“You can work 24 hours if you have to,” K.C. said. “If you work in a store and it’s slow they send you home. But even if it’s busy or not, you can drive.”

For Susa, the taxi business has changed a lot over the past four years. "It’s harder now,” she said. “People who regularly took cabs stopped because of the economy.”

Susa lives by O’Hare, so she always starts her shift in the airport waiting lot. “Sometimes I wait 30 minutes, other times I wait a few hours,” Susa said. “But I never want to drive to or from the suburbs without a customer. It’s a waste of time and gas.”

The high price of gas has made making a profit even harder. “I don’t just cruise in the city,” Susa said. “I park somewhere, and I never go back home empty.”

Another difficult part of driving a taxi, Susa said, is that there is no union or central organization where drivers can work together to help each other. Though, “many people are now forming their own organizations,” Susa said. “Many are forming groups based on ethnicity.”

“I am waiting for something better down the road,” she admits.

Anna Guzman started working in the car service industry following a stint as a waitress for several years. “I was making okay money,” Guzman said.

She left her waitressing job for a “ great new job opportunity” that fell through. “It is so hard getting a new job now,” Guzman said. “So now I drive a limo.”

Guzman has young children and driving a limousine allowed her to have more flexibility with her hours so that she can start early in the morning and be home by the time her children are finished with school.

“I’m seeing a lot more women than when I started driving,” Guzman said. “Everybody needs a job.”

Moozafer Hassan, a Chicago taxicab driver, said that he has seen more female drivers since 2008. “I think people do this because there are no jobs, or they are inbetween jobs,” Hassan said.

Yasmine Ali, a single mother with three children, also needed a job with some flexibility that would pay the bills. That’s when she started driving a limo for Avon Limousines, an airport car service company.

After driving 12-hour shifts for three years, Ali said she still likes the job.

“When the economy went down, this was one of the ways to make good enough money,” Ali said. “I think this industry is 40 percent women now,” she guessed.

Though women are definitely the minority in the car service industry, Stacy Jacob, whose family owns Fantasy Limousine of Chicago, said she has seen more female limousine and taxi drivers over the past few years.

At Fantasy Limousine, there are only two female drivers, Jacob said. It was always just Jacob, but a couple of years ago another woman was hired. “She lost her job and was looking for work,” Jacob said.

For these women, driving a taxi or limousine is a way to keep surviving in a harsh economy. “It’s a very powerful job to have right now,” Ali said. “Even in this economy.”