Taxi trouble

Overwork and underpay make Reno taxi cab drivers an unhappy lot. Many say conditions are worse than they have been in years—and some blame the casinos for their woes

Taxi driver Larry Arnett works seven 12-hour shifts a week. So when he sees tourists catching a lift out of town to the brothels in a casino shuttle, he’s more than annoyed.

Taxi driver Larry Arnett works seven 12-hour shifts a week. So when he sees tourists catching a lift out of town to the brothels in a casino shuttle, he’s more than annoyed.

Photo By David Robert

There are people who drive taxis, says Larry Arnett, and then there are taxi drivers.

Arnett, 57, who works for a local cab company, says that either you have the drive to be a driver—the tolerance, patience and, at times, the humility—or you don’t.

“Cab drivers are like a special breed of people,” he says. “It takes a special person to sit out here, 10 to 12 hours a day, put up with obnoxious drunks, with people who have just gambled their paychecks away.”

And lately, Arnett says, you have to put up with a slimming pocketbook. Tough times have fallen on the local cab industry, and Arnett, who prefers that the company he works for not be named, says that many drivers are barely staying afloat. Some are on the brink of homelessness. He says that he is making 40 to 50 percent less than he was just a couple years ago.

To compensate for the lack of business, Arnett works his 12-hour shift, which starts at 5 p.m., seven nights a week, although he sometimes cuts it short when business is slow. He doesn’t want to put his health in jeopardy. He’s had four heart attacks.

“I just don’t care anymore,” he says as he carefully turns his cab from Fifth Street onto the bustling Sierra Street traffic on a recent Saturday night. “I’m learning not to stress about it.”

But Arnett, who volunteered to take me around in his taxi and talk about problems facing drivers of the three major cab companies in the Truckee Meadows, still cares enough to do something about what he says could well turn into a cab driver crisis.

Sitting in Arnett’s cab in a taxi line on a Saturday outside the Peppermill Hotel-Casino, I talk to Arnett, driver Jim Malone and driver Charles Maning. They say that sitting around is something they’ve been doing a lot of lately.

“Tonight is like a night in December,” Maning says. “Nobody’s out.”

He says that a night like this—a pleasant evening at the start of spring break—would have brought in $100 on average a year or so ago. Now a driver might get $60 to $70.

“It used to be a good job,” Arnett says. “Five years ago, it was a good job.”

But with the economy, especially tourism, suffering, some drivers say casinos are making things worse by giving tourists too many free rides.

“You sit there [in front of a casino] and watch their vans take nine, eight, 10 people wherever they want to go,” Arnett says.

Casino shuttles have gone from putting a small dent in the cab drivers’ airport-to-casino transport to inflicting big wounds in their around-town business and casino-to-brothel transport, Arnett says. Fliers that address the problem are being given to drivers of all local cab companies.

“The free shuttles are taking money out of our pockets,” reads one of the notices. “It has gotten out of hand and something needs to be done. Virtually every major hotel in our community runs some sort of shuttle that infringes on our livelihood. Many of these businesses are running vans all over the area, picking up passengers anywhere they can.”

Circulating with the notices are “Taxi Driver Incident Report” forms. Drivers document “violations"—shuttle trips that drivers feel overstep casino shuttle bounds.

Arnett and Malone both say that they’ve seen a number of such violations. They say that sometimes shuttle drivers steal the business right out from under the noses of taxi drivers. At one casino, Arnett was about to give a party of four casino patrons a ride. Two were inside the cab and two were about to get in. A shuttle driver came along and offered them a ride. Arnett’s would-be passengers got out and went with the shuttle driver.

Another cab driver reported an incident in which a casino employee, who had been getting a ride home from work via cab every night, got into a casino vehicle to go home.

“We are now in the dilemma that, if nothing is done, we will no longer have jobs,” another notice reads. “It’s conceivable under the present trend that there will be no taxis operating within the Truckee Meadows by this time next year.”

I ask Arnett if the statement is a bit of an exaggeration.

“We’re going to try to do this legal for a couple months, then shut the whole thing down for the night,” he says.

Arnett says he doesn’t want the situation to become volatile. He doesn’t want driver hostility to reach the levels that it did in Las Vegas in the early 1990s, when drivers got so fed up that they began blowing up shuttles.

“I would rather the casinos show a little respect to the [cab drivers] who bring the people who work in the casinos to work.”

Arnett, who’s been driving taxis in Reno since 1975 and put in 18- to 20-hour days for five years managing a local cab company, says that he’s seen the local taxi business go through problems. But nothing that compares to the present situation.

“I’ve seen it slow down, but I’ve never seen it like this. When you see a [casino] van unload 10 people—10 people is two to three cabs.”

With the six- or seven-day workweek becoming a standard among many drivers—some of whom say that despite long hours, bills are barely getting paid—things seem unfair, to say the least. I talked to several drivers that Saturday night outside the Peppermill, and none was happy with his job. Some were angry—at casinos and some at cab companies as well—and others seemed simply tired. One driver says he plans to leave the business soon. He wants to open a gospel mission in Idaho.

Unfair it may seem, but Arnett, Malone and the cadre of other drivers circulating the notices bring up legality issues as well. Do the shuttle drivers have the correct permits? Are the shuttles operating in compliance with Nevada administrative code?

Under Nevada Administrative Code 706.147, which regulates the provision of free shuttle services, hotels and casinos are permitted to operate shuttles so long as the shuttle’s driver is employed by the hotel or casino, the hotel or casino is the place of arrival or departure, the shuttle operates free of charge and tips are not solicited (though shuttle drivers may accept tips). According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, shuttle drivers need no special license or permit unless they are hauling 15 or more people—too large a number to fit into the average casino shuttle.

Christine Ray, customer service manager at the Peppermill, says that the Peppermill’s shuttle travels only to and from the airport. Annie Uccelli, publicist for the Silver Legacy Hotel-Casino, also says that its shuttle is used only for transporting airport-bound passengers.

“We’ve had a great relationship with the cab companies since the day we were built,” says Legacy General Manager Gary Carano.

Anita Lilly, a representative for Western Village Inn & Casino, says that Western Village offers more than just casino-airport transport, but its two shuttles are restricted in their travels. She says that a shuttle will go to the airport or to a small number of other casinos—shuttle drivers have a list of designated stops—but that they are careful not to infringe on taxi business. And she says that shuttles do not go to brothels, one of the taxi drivers’ major complaints. That would be an infringement.

Certainly, it’s unlikely that any casino has a hidden agenda to undercut cab driver business. Yet many cab drivers, the ones who spend long portions of their shifts parked outside casinos waiting for business, are angry at what they see. For drivers like Arnett, it means that a job he once loved is turning sour—and things seem only to be getting worse.

“Ninety-nine percent of [passengers] are nice. You talk to them, learn things.Then you sit around for an hour or so and ‘learn’ how you’re gonna pay the rent."