Hailing Chen immigrated to Queens from China when he was 14 years old. He learned English from near-scratch, worked as a busboy throughout school and ultimately graduated from St. John’s University. Yet, he found it incredibly difficult to find a career, ultimately settling for a job as an Uber driver.
“Achieving the American dream is getting harder and harder,” said the City Council District 20 candidate.
After some years of enduring low wages and poor worker protections, Chen opted to stand up for gig workers’ rights rather than search for another career path. He became a labor leader with the Independent Drivers Guild and a Machinists Union affiliate.
Chen had previously organized rallies for contract driver reform outside City Hall. Now, Chen hopes to fight for workers’ rights from inside its walls as his district’s councilmember. The race to replace term-limited Peter Koo (D-Flushing) features seven candidates.
Protections for app-based drivers and delivery personnel is a major component of Chen’s campaign and what prompted him to run for city government. City councilmembers have introduced legislation that would classify contract workers as employees and provide them with paid sick leave, but Chen believes the battle needs to go further, including guaranteeing an acceptable wage.
“Fifteen dollars is a liveable wage, but it’s the minimum,” the candidate said. Though his roots are based in Uber, Chen promises to fight for all gig workers, as well as those in poorly protected careers.
Chen proposes conducting an updated study on what wages can sustain life in New York City, especially as the cost of living increases. Some careers wages remain stagnant unless required by law to increase.
The Flushing resident believes that workers’ and immigrant rights are closely tied together. Work is limited for English as a second language speakers, but the city government could step in and alleviate their struggles by breaking down the language barrier, Chen said.
“We need to make sure they have a decent education, training and skills. They’re suffering without it,” he explained, a problem he experienced firsthand in his youth. Immigrants should be entitled to resources in their native tongue, as well as opportunities that assist in American assimilation, he noted.
The lack of access for the district extends beyond language, Chen said, pointing to vaccination distribution.
“It’s proven that in these diverse communities we’re getting left behind by this whole process. Multiple clinics in my district have applied to be a vaccine site but haven’t been approved,” Chen said.
The Flushing section of District 20 does have eight vaccination sites, with nearby Citi Field, but Chen said the number of vaccinations received by the neighborhood does not correlate to the number of doses being housed within it — according to city data as of Feb. 24, an average of just 6 percent of the adult population received their first shot and 6 percent received both.
Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo have long blamed the slow vaccination rollout on the federal government, but Chen argued the city could be doing more to protect its people in the meantime. Part of the solution is establishing methods of progress, such as approving vaccine sites and securing dosages, well into the future.
“We seem to be behind on everything and getting back to normal is making sure everyone is safe,” he said. “If it’s not safe for one person, it’s not safe for anyone ... I advocate a lot in regards to health and safety because that’s the only way we can make a difference.”
Flushing is also suffering one of the city’s highest Covid infection rates — as of Feb. 24, the 11355 ZIP code had a 16 percent infection rate, double the citywide average. Chen said the neighborhood’s congestion problem is partly to blame. Large families live in crowded spaces, he explained, which leads to subpar living conditions. One solution he pointed to was legalizing basement apartments for tenants.
The congestion has also resulted in pollution for the district, especially from car emissions.
“We rely on vehicles to transport people. The city can come up with a program to subsidize to buy electric cars, which is more protection because of the nature of technology,” Chen said. The City Council could help incentivize street recycling programs, which Chen says are lacking in Downtown Flushing, and craft legislation requiring large companies to lower pollution rates.
Chen sees a conflict in his role as an Uber labor supporter, while also a clean environment advocate, but believes a compromise can be achieved. His drive to keep vulnerable populations top of mind is what makes him the ideal District 20 candidate, he said.
“I understand what the community needs. Opportunity is shrinking. The change is inevitable,” Chen said. “There is no time to wait. We are already in the crisis.”