Taxi drivers say they’re forced to pay high-priced, illegal kickbacks to valets and lobby staff at San Francisco International Airport hotels or face losing business to drivers who do pay up.
Already hit hard by ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, where customers can summon a driver with a few taps of a smartphone, cab drivers s say they’re now being squeezed from multiple directions.
Drivers call it extortion – forced to pay hotel staff as much as $25 for a single fare from an airport hotel in Burlingame to downtown San Francisco. For longer trips to San Jose or Oakland, the payment can be as high as $40 or $50. If drivers don’t pay, they say hotel staff simply calls a driver who does.
Those types of kickbacks are illegal in Burlingame, and clear violations of hotel policies. Now, after an NBC Bay Area investigation, police say they’re going to take action and hotels say they’re going to look into the matter.
Four Burlingame taxi drivers went on the record with NBC Bay Area, although they asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation. Multiple other drivers confirmed the practice on background. In fact, every driver approached by NBC Bay Area said the kickbacks were an issue.
“They call whoever pays more,” one driver said. “If we don't pay, we don't get business. So we have to pay to at least get something.”
He said even if he’s in front of the cab line, hotel staff will ignore him, opting instead to call a driver who pays the highest commission.
By the time driver pays for gas, insurance, permits and vehicle depreciation, they say hotel employees end up with an even cut of the fare, without putting in any of the work.
“It’s money under the table,” another driver said. “It’s big money. Drivers are paying almost half the money they make.”
There’s always been an expectation of a tip for hotel staff, drivers say, because gratuities are engrained in the culture. But those tips used to be 5 or 10 dollars, not the 20 or 30 dollars they’ve been paying in recent years. As a result, drivers say they‘re barely making enough to get by.
“We work 10 hours, sometimes 12 hours to cover all the money we give to them,” another driver said. “We work seven days a week. We cannot support our families.”
Drivers say it happens at nearly every airport hotel dotting the Burlingame waterfront.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit went undercover to verify what drivers were saying. Time and time again, at hotels such as the Embassy Suites, Hilton, Marriott and Doubletree, NBC Bay Area crews witnessed cab drivers handing money over to hotel staff.
At the Embassy Suites, in a 10 minute span, cameras caught one front desk employee taking money from drivers on three separate occasions and sticking the cash directly into his wallet. At the Marriott and Hilton, our team observed valet staff accepting money from drivers at the curbside pickup area on multiple occasions.
Hilton Worldwide, which also owns the Embassy Suites and the DoubleTree, issued a statement in response to NBC Bay Area’s investigation.
“Hilton has a policy that prohibits employees from soliciting gratuities and requires all properties and team members to comply with local laws. We are investigating this matter.”
The Marriott also issued a statement saying kickbacks were against company policy.
“The hotel has strict guidelines in place and adheres to local standards related to proper procedures for booking transportation. We take accusations of quid quo pro business ethics violations very seriously and have zero tolerance for this type of behavior. We are not aware of any specific violations to the hotel. If we are made aware of confirmed instances of impropriety, we will take the appropriate measures to address the situation.”
The practice is illegal in Burlingame, which has an anti-kickback ordinance. But Police Chief Eric Wollman said his department has only received one official complaint in the four years since he’s been there, which the department acted on. However, after seeing the results of NBC Bay Area’s investigation, Wollman said he plans on putting the hotels on notice.
“I think this particular report is going to provide us the ability to go and reach out to the hotels and make it clear to them that this ordinance exists in the City of Burlingame,” Wollman said. “Second of all, I want to reach out to the [cab drivers] themselves and I want to make them feel more comfortable about reporting any violation of this ordinance to the police.”
Wollman said if hotels continue to violate the ordinance after he meets with them, his department will take action.
“What I can go on record saying is that I will pretty much guarantee compliance checks in the future,” Wollman said. Additionally, the chief said his traffic division is putting together a document to be handed out to cab drivers at their next inspection, detailing the rules prohibiting this type of behavior and telling drivers how to report problems directly to police.
Yet cab drivers say the hotels themselves can easily put a stop to the situation. Kickbacks aren’t as big of an issue in San Francisco because for the most part, San Francisco hotels have clearly defined and enforced cab lines. While there are parking spots reserved for taxis at Burlingame hotels, there’s no structure to the system, and no guarantee that the first driver waiting gets the first fare out the door.
“The best way to help the taxi drivers is for every hotel to have a taxi line and have the taxis be close to the lobby where the customers can see,” one driver said. “If all hotels have a taxi line and they respect the taxi line, it’s going to be a big help for us.”