WAMU - Washington —
Two weeks after the start of universal credit card acceptance in Washington, D.C. cabs, the transition from cash-only to modern technology has been bumpy, with more than 5,600 of the District’s roughly 6,500 cabs having installed systems that accept payments from both credit cards and smartphone apps.
By Oct. 1, the District’s more than 100 cab companies and hundreds of independent drivers were required to sign contracts with a payment service provider (PSP) to process their credit card transactions, a process that began in June but came down to the final weeks of September as cabbies tried to squeeze in their installations before the deadline. The commission provided fleet owners and drivers with a list of eight PSPs from which to choose; some cabbies have since complained about glitches and system crashes.
But one tech company in particular has angered drivers: a D.C.-based startup named Hitch.
Based on interviews with individual drivers, fleet owners, a drivers’ association and District officials, scores -- if not hundreds -- of D.C. cabbies have seen only sporadic payments deposited into their accounts after being processed by Hitch. Some drivers say they have not been paid at all. But the problems are the result of confusion, haste, and clerical mistakes, not theft or nefarious deeds.
“There are some drivers who are owed three weeks ago, four weeks ago from one of the first installations we have done. End of August until now, they haven’t gotten paid,” said Mo Rahim, an owner of the Rock Creek Cab Company, who said his entire fleet of 250 cabs signed up with Hitch as its payment service provider.
Hitch is the PSP in more than 1,300 of the 5,600 taxis now using the new Modern Taximeter System (MTS), which increased the base fare $.25 to $3.25 and tacked on a $.25 surcharge to fund the Taxicab Commission’s operations. The installation process was not smooth. The startup was threatened with suspension for falling behind.
“The previous issues Hitch had to overcome were precipitated from over scheduling their capability to install MTS units and having equipment on back order further delaying installations,” said Neville Waters, a commission spokesman. “Hitch is being monitored by us daily.”
Now Hitch drivers are asking: where is my money? When this reporter interviewed Rahim at Rock Creek Cab Company offices in Washington, a Hitch field representative was on scene dealing with drivers’ complaints, their parked taxis forming a line. He declined to comment because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
“There are bumps in the road for any business, but for it to take two months for some drivers to get paid? And I have lines of drivers here every single day,” said an incredulous Rahim. “I see they are trying to work on it. They are trying to fix it. But look at these cars! These are all drivers waiting to talk to the representative from Hitch.”
“They don’t pay us, no. I don’t know what they do. They are cheating. They keep the money maybe until they get interest, or they do something,” said cab driver Brahim Hourrane, who said he hated his new credit card reader.
"It has been almost two months and they didn’t send me a penny in my bank. Right now that guy [Hitch representative] pulled out my [account]. It says $3,700,” said Rock Creek cabbie John Qasimyar.
“I have three kids and I am confused about who’s going to feed them because you work but you don’t [have] the money,” added cabbie Jemil Issa.
In an interview with WAMU 88.5, Hitch CEO David Miller opened his records to explain why some drivers did not get paid on time. He insisted his small staff is working around the clock to resolve the disputes.
“We often get routing numbers, account numbers that are incorrect,” said Miller, who provided this reporter a spreadsheet of accounts where direct deposits were bounced back to his company. “If a driver has never been paid that is a clear indication that we have a routing number problem or account number problem.”
When signing their contracts, cabbies were required to write in their account and routing numbers on a Hitch form, and the startup failed to verify their accuracy. In the rush to complete its installations and get its payment system up and running, an extra numeral or two written at the end of an account number tripped up the high-tech startup.
“Now we require people to give us a voided check. We do not simply trust the numbers,” he said. “We could have done this better. Anytime you do anything hindsight is 20/20 and there is always learning.”
“We made a decision early on that we wanted to bring the most advanced technology solution to the market. And part of that advanced technology is paying drivers in a direct deposit fashion,” said Miller, who said other PSPs require their drivers to visit their offices to be paid in cash.
In some cases, drivers were paid but they failed to notice the deposit or forgot that Hitch—as per their contract—subtracted the first $100 as a deposit in the credit card equipment.
“After investigating specific driver concerns we have made aware of, it has been discovered that many drivers didn’t realize money was being electronically deposited into their accounts or that incorrect account information had been provided,” said the DCTC’s Waters.
Before the District mandated credit card acceptance through the MTS, many cabbies took credit card payments through Square, a small device that is attached to a smartphone to process transactions, but they mostly preferred cash. It is not a paycheck to paycheck job. Cabbies eke out a day to day existence, and the wad of cash in their pockets after 12 hours on the road would pay the bills and feed their families.
“They depend on getting paid daily, and that’s been the case for many years. They have families they have to feed, they have bills to pay, and when the money doesn’t come in, it puts them in a very precarious situation,” said Massoud Medghalchi, a board member at Dominion of D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association.
Citing glitches or crashes with their new systems, some drivers still use Square -- even though it is illegal. Because Square was not one of the eight PSPs authorized by the District, it does not send the required $.25 of every transaction to the Commission.