San Francisco cab drivers are required to provide a urine specimen every year if they want to keep their permits. (Screenshot/SFMTA website)

A birthday present from the SFMTA

Drug test needed to renew a cab permit is humiliating, demeaning

This time of the year always fills me with dread. Not just because I’m one year older, but as a taxi driver, I get a special birthday present from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: the onerous task of renewing my A-Card, the permit that allows me to operate a taxicab on the streets of San Francisco. The process includes, among other indignities, pissing in a cup.

Each year, I dutifully go down to the Concentra Medical Center in Potrero Hill and sit in their crowded lobby, squirming on a chair with a throbbing bladder, waiting for my turn to donate a specimen. The ordeal usually takes over an hour.

It’s humiliating. Demeaning. A violation of my privacy.

And for what?

According to the SFMTA, the Drug and Alcohol Testing Program for taxicab drivers was implemented in 2015 to comply with state law. I guess mandatory drug testing is supposed to convince the public that taxis are safe, and drivers – at least for three days out of the year – are drug free. But hardly anyone cares. It’s just another hurdle you have to jump through for the privilege of being a taxi driver.

Then there’s the hassle of getting a medical marijuana card. Even though weed is legal in the state of California, Proposition 64 doesn’t change the transportation code. Since my preferred CBD tincture includes a small percentage of THC, during the next few weeks, I’ll have to hunt down a shady doctor somewhere who still offers marijuana referrals. Already tedious challenge before COVID, now it’s surely to be a major headache. In fact, every step of this entire process will be more of a hassle because of COVID. You can’t even go grocery shopping nowadays without encountering various aggravations.

So yeah… happy birthday to me.

Meanwhile, Uber/Lyft drivers only need a pulse and a smartphone to perform the same job. Even Assembly Bill 5, which made Uber/Lyft drivers – according to state Law – employees, doesn’t require them to adhere to the same standards as taxi drivers. No, they don’t have to piss in cups or do rigorous background checks. It doesn’t make the ride any safer. AB5 just guarantees app-based drivers minimum wage, health care, worker’s comp and other benefits that employees enjoy.

Sounds awesome.

For Uber/Lyft drivers.

No wonder Uber and Lyft are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get an exemption from AB5, inundating social media and other markets with ads, urging people to vote yes on their Proposition 22.

Even though we’re exempt from AB5, it shouldn’t be surprising that most taxi drivers are opposed to Prop. 22. Forcing Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers like employees just might create a level playing field for taxis to survive. The companies will undoubtedly raise the rates, and maybe they won’t have as much freedom to flood the streets with inexperienced drivers. If Prop. 22 passes, though, it could be another deathblow to the taxi industry.

Still, AB5 is a garbage bill. Although its author, Lorena Gonzalez, has insisted vehemently on Twitter that it wasn’t specifically directed at Uber and Lyft, et. al., why have so many other industries been able to carve out exemptions? Even freelance writers, including myself, who were initially hit hard by AB5, are finally getting an exemption, along with many other occupations that traditionally have been performed – happily – by independent contractors who ended up as collateral damage in the passing of AB5.

That just leaves Uber, Lyft and all the assorted delivery companies in the crosshairs of AB5.

There was never any discussion, of course, except among ourselves, that taxi drivers were misclassified as independent contractors. Oh no, no, no. One just needs to glance at the letterhead in the paperwork the SFMTA sends you to renew your A-Card. There, at the top, is London Breed’s name. Since taxi drivers fall under the jurisdiction of San Francisco, the burden would fall on The City to provide benefits to taxi drivers. And nobody in Sacramento or City Hall wants that.

I guess we should just be grateful we don’t have to pay a renewal fee for our A- Cards this year. That would be the ultimate degradation now: paying for the luxury of being a taxi driver.

Kelly Dessaint, a San Francisco taxi driver and veteran zine publisher, is the author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy.” His long-running Behind the Wheel zine series is collected into a paperback “Omnibus,” available through all book marketplaces or from his blog, idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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