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Cab driver loses contract after pricing taxi meters

The driver, who is organizing a cabbie association, wanted to help drivers go into their own businesses, he says.

Frank Dunn's occupation ended with an e-mail. Dunn, a driver for nine years for United Cab, wanted to know how much a cab meter costs. So he sent an e-mail to a salesman asking about prices.

The salesman happened to mention the inquiry to Dunn's boss at United Cab, general manager Nancy Castellano. Dunn was summoned to Castellano's office.

"This is it," she told him, Dunn said. "I have to let you go."

Dunn, who is organizing an association of Tampa cab drivers, said he was fired because he wanted to help other drivers go into business for themselves. He said his inquiry about buying a meter threatened the control two cab companies hold over drivers in Hillsborough.

"They will cut you off at the knees if you even try," Dunn said. "That's what happened to me."

In any other profession, Dunn said, he could compete in a free market against his ex-boss. But since he was dismissed two weeks ago, Dunn hasn't been able to work.

That's because the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission limits who can run a taxi cab business. Drivers must have a permit to operate, and in Hillsborough, nearly all the permits are held by United Cab, Yellow Cab or affiliates or subsidiaries of those companies.

The Transportation Commission has awarded almost all of the 472 existing permits to the two cab giants. Drivers say the commission's regulations, which require 24-hour operation, make it hard for small businesses to break in.

"It's not fair that these two cab companies be given all of this power and have no accountability for it," Dunn said. "In the long run, the public suffers."

Castellano of United Cab did not return repeated calls for comment. But she did speak to County Commissioner Pat Frank and Gregory Cox, executive director of the Transportation Commission, about Dunn's dismissal.

Both officials said Castellano told them she let Dunn go because he was going to compete against United. Frank said Castellano told her, "Burger King or McDonald's would not hire people to compete with them."

"Well, Burger King and McDonald's don't have an exclusive right to operate their business," Frank said. "It's terrible. It just bothers me a lot."

Dunn's contract appears to give him little protection. United considers its drivers independent contractors, not employees.

Dunn said he paid United $450 a week to lease the cab, use a dispatch service and pick up customers at Tampa International Airport, which has an agreement with United to let its taxi service into the airport. After paying for gas, Dunn said, he would take home any money after paying United.

Even drivers with their own vehicles must pay a fee to the company.

Because they are independent contractors, the cab companies do not pay for drivers' personal injury insurance, unemployment compensation, health benefits or Social Security.

"We actually pay the company to work," said Ken Steadham, a former taxi cab driver who is helping organize drivers with Dunn.

Dunn, 49, said he was released because United wanted to frighten drivers away from joining his new association, the Tampa Area Cabdriver's Trust Inc., or TACT, which helps dues-paying members with health benefits and other expenses.

If so, the tactics may be working. At the group's last meeting, nearly 75 drivers showed up. But on Tuesday, after word got around about Dunn's dismissal, only 20 drivers attended.

These days, Dunn stays at home looking for work from his two-bedroom apartment in a complex near TIA, which charges $665 a month in rent. Dunn applied to drive for Yellow Cab, but the company has not gotten back to him.

Meanwhile, he worries about paying his rent.

"It hasn't been easy," he said.