Borough carriage drivers fear for jobs

Borough carriage drivers fear for jobs
Photo by Christina Santucci
By Kelsey Durham

For many Queens residents who work as carriage drivers in Central Park, the centuries-old business is more than just a job.

Steve Malone is the proud son of a Bayside couple who started a horse-drawn carriage business in 1964 and Malone, who now lives on Long Island, has been in the business himself for nearly 27 years. He is just one of hundreds of workers across New York fighting to save their jobs, threatened by a proposed ban on horse-drawn carriage rides in the park.

“It would be devastating,” he said. “This is a business that’s been in families for decades. Now they want to take it away.”

A recent proposal put forth by Mayor Bill de Blasio seeks to put an end to the business that he believes is cruel to horses. Malone, who serves as spokesman for the Local 553 union representing carriage drivers, said there are about 300 licensed workers across the city who depend on the carriage ride industry to make their living.

Some 15 percent to 20 percent of those people, he said, live near Bayside and would be left without anything to fall back on if their jobs were lost.

“We have 68 carriages and those carriages represent 68 small businesses,” he said. “It’s not a game. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods. We have a very good, legal business that’s been in place for 155 years and it has no reason to be replaced.”

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has been one of the strongest proponents of the legislation, dating back to his time in the City Council when he proposed a ban of his own in 2009. Avella cited several concerns with the business, such as overworked horses and owners not following regulations.

He also said there is a “serious safety issue” involved with having the horses so close to Manhattan’s busy streets.

“Why do we allow them in Midtown traffic anymore?” Avella said. “It’s sort of crazy. The two don’t mix. There’s a reason horse and buggies don’t exist anymore.”

Malone said the Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution in 2012 approving additions to the more than 140 pages of regulations meant to protect the horses.

According to the regulations, horses are not allowed to work in temperatures above 89 degrees or below 18 degrees. A section of Central Park’s website dedicated to horse carriage tours also notes that animals have been known to be taken back to stables in snow or other inclement weather.

The newest rules passed in 2012 added vacation time for animals, increased stall size at stables and called for more vaccination and healthcare. Malone dismissed the idea that rules are not followed by drivers, but Avella argued that the city agencies in charge of overseeing the industry don’t enforce regulations and said it has led to safety concerns and businesses illegally overcharging customers.

“The city has been doing an awful job monitoring this industry,” he said. “It’s disgraceful.”

Avella said he is aware some of the drivers who would be affected by the ban live in his district and has agreed to work with business owners to come up with alternatives to help them keep their jobs. He has suggested converting carriages into motorized cars that would operate without horses and said medallions could be transferred at a “very minor cost.”

De Blasio has proposed using electric cars, but Avella and Malone said it would not work in the long run because of the cost. Avella said he is not opposed to discussing other options but said the fact of the matter is that the industry as it exists is outdated.

“Nobody wants to put anyone out of work, but there are alternatives,” he said. “Businesses go out every day because they’re no longer appropriate. I think we’re coming to an end and how the end comes about is still in question.”

Malone said the union is waiting to see how far the proposal will go before deciding what needs to be done to fight it. Until then, he and the rest of the drivers will continue to hope for the best.

“We’re in a holding pattern right now and when we know exactly what the mayor is proposing, then we can have a plan of attack,” he said. “He’s the one who started this war.”

Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at kdurham@cnglocal.com.

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