MAXWELL:  No promise of delivery

7/21/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


After 14 of his drivers were robbed and one was shot to death in a high-crime neighborhood, the manager of a Miami taxi company warns his cabbies against picking up suspicious fares in the area. When the new manager of a Chicago pizzeria learns that several of the company’s delivery people had been robbed in a high-crime district during the last two years, she declares the area off-limits after sundown.

These are not isolated cases. Many similar ones occur nationwide each year, according to a recent study of “workplace violence” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The report states that, statistically, workers who deal directly with the public by exchanging money and delivering goods and services face the greatest risk of being killed.

Twenty workers are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted each week, with cab drivers dying most frequently. In 1994, 84 cabbies perished at the hands of assailants. Statistically, pizza deliverers also face a high number of threats.

Despite these dangers, many cities _ by using appeals to civil rights and by threatening to levy huge fines or snatch occupational licenses _ often try to intimidate and shame companies into sending their workers into all neighborhoods.

Recently, for example, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the first law in the nation that prohibits businesses from refusing to deliver in certain communities that otherwise would be part of a regular route. Although the law is virtually unenforceable, it sets a troubling precedent for retailing and other service industries.

The San Francisco law, according to the New York Times, is the brainchild of 72-year-old Willie Kennedy, a black member of the Board of Supervisors. She proposed the measure after her grandson, William Fobbs, could not get a nearby Domino’s Pizza to deliver to his home in Hunter’s Point, a mostly black district with a reputation for being crime territory. Kennedy also lives there.

But Hunter’s Point no longer deserves much of its bad reputation. Many of the drug dealers and other hoodlums are gone, and attractive new homes have replaced much of the run-down public housing. Civil rights advocates believe that Domino’s redlined the area solely on the basis of class and race. “When people advertise that they deliver, they should deliver everywhere,” Kennedy said. “They judge all of us by the worst of us.”

What the San Francisco Board of Supervisors sees as blatant discrimination, the California Restaurant Association and Domino’s Pizza see as a logical way to protect innocent workers.

Should a pizzeria be forced to deliver in a high-crime area? Invariably, the question leads to a skewed discussion of race. Most delivery personnel _ the victims _ are young white males. And most high-crime areas that are off-limits are black. As ugly as racial discrimination is, no boss should knowingly send workers into a neighborhood where other workers have been attacked.

Racism is bad, but reckless laws can be deadly. Knowing this fact, Fobbs, manager of a private security company that patrols federal housing developments, and David Wilcox, owner of the Domino’s that refused to deliver to Fobbs’ home, together inspected every street in Hunter’s Point.

Afterward, Wilcox said that he would deliver to selected streets in the district. Other streets, though, still would be off limits. Fobbs agreed, admitting that even he would avoid some parts of his own neighborhood because they are too dangerous.

A policy like that of San Francisco is written by politicians who believe that the delivery of goods and services is a right. This is a laudable, democratic concept. But the delivery of goods and services in the private sector is a privilege and not a right.

Dan McCarthy, manager of the Yellow Cab Co. in Gainesville, operated on this principle last year when he incurred the wrath of city commissioners. One night, two young black males tried to rob a Yellow Cab driver. McCarthy, who is white, said that the driver, who is black, had nearly been robbed because he had violated a company policy of not picking up young black males who did not give a specific address.

Even though he apologized to the black community and promised to abide by ordinances that require any cab company with available vehicles to pick up a fare, McCarthy had used common sense by enforcing the company policy. As manager, he had a duty to protect the drivers.

After all, law enforcement officials reported at the time that all of the six cab robberies and scores of attempted robberies on record during the two years prior to the McCarthy flap were committed by young black males.

Apparently, San Francisco and Gainesville officials want to be fair. But they and other lawmakers err when they try to send highly visible delivery workers and cabbies _ who carry cash _ into crime zones without providing additional city-sponsored protections. If city leaders do not provide such protections, they should be held liable if workers are harmed as a result of misguided ordinances.

After collecting their wits, members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors amended the law to let businesses refuse to deliver if the firms demonstrate “a reasonable good faith belief” that a delivery poses “an unreasonable risk of harm.”

And the Gainesville City Commission seems to havew come to its senses by amending its ordinances. Now, taxi drivers can refuse to pick up fares if the drivers believe that their safety is in imminent danger.

These are wise changes because _ taking race into account _ they balance the customers’ desire for services and the workers’ right to be protected.