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Tour Bus Ticket-Sellers Fear They'll Be Jailed for Doing Their Jobs

By Jill Colvin | November 14, 2011 9:29am
Alpha Balde, 51, said he's worried what  he'll tell his twins if he's ever arrested while doing his job.
Alpha Balde, 51, said he's worried what he'll tell his twins if he's ever arrested while doing his job.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Walk along any major Midtown thoroughfare and you're bound to spot them: men and women dressed in their signature red and yellow uniforms hawking tickets for double-decker sightseeing tours.

But the sellers, who work for companies like Gray Line and CitySights NY, say they're being forced into an imposible choice: violate the law or lose their jobs.

Vendors for double-decker tour buses said they can't keep up with the constant back and forth between lawyers for the city and lawyers for NY Skyride, a virtual reality ride at the Empire State Building, whose aggressive ticket-sellers sparked the legal battle by drawing endless complaints from neighbors.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Donna Mills ruled in September that ticket-sellers can't sell tickets on the street without a vendors’ license, reversing a decades-old interpretation that let ticket hawkers sell openly and without a license, unlike t-shirt vendors, and other souvenir vendors forced to have a license to sell on the street.

Police began enforcement on October 25, but halted it within a week after Skyride's operator appealed the judge's ruling.

Vendors say that in the months since the judge's ruling, their companies have ordered them to flout the law, by sending them out with credit card machines in hand to continue making sales.

“They said, ‘Don’t sell tickets in front of the police,'” said one Gray Line worker, 27, who’s worked for the company for four years, and like many others interviewed by DNAinfo, declined to give his name for fear of losing his job.

The worker and several others said he was called into a meeting about three months ago and told that, because of the pending Skyline decision, they would need to watch out.

Alpha Balde, 51, from the Bronx, who has worked for CitySights for more than a decade, said he was told explicitly to avoid the area around the Empire State Building, where enforcement appears to be most severe.

“If you’re going to over there and get arrested, you’re on your own,” he said he was warned.

A spokesman for Twin America, the company that owns both CitySights NY and Gray Line, did not return repeated calls for comment over the course of several weeks about the impact of the ruling and the company’s policies.

“I’m worried. I don’t want to come outside doing my job and get arrested. What am I going to tell my kids?” said Balde, who fears that he’ll wind up slapped with a hefty fine or permanent record — just for doing his job.

“We’re asking the city to help us,” said Balde, who is originally from Guinea, and said he relies on his job to support twins in high school and a daughter in college. He added that he thinks the vendors provide other valuable service, like offering tourists directions.

Balde’s concerns echoed those of more than a dozen vendors interview by DNAinfo, who said that colleagues had been ticketed and arrested in recent months for selling on the street for not having licenses. An NYPD spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for information about how many sellers had been fined or arrested under the new rules.

To cope with the new rules, some vendors have shifted their posts to what some say are less lucrative blocks farther uptown. Others said they were instructed by their company to make sales on board buses instead of on the street.

But because they work purely on commission and are desperate to lock in sales, most said they have continued processing orders on the street, even if they know it may put them at risk.

Asked if he thought his company would come to his aid if he were to be arrested, the 27-year-old shook his head.

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” he said, adding that he thought he would also be forced to pay any fines.

Other vendors, however, said they’d been instructed by superiors to bring any tickets they receive to their head offices, to be handled there, or have been assured by supervisors that they’ll be reimbursed.

Either way, the vendors said they’re looking for a resolution that protects their safety and their jobs, which, in a rough economy, they say they can’t give up.

Ibrahem Doumbouya, 49, who’s been a ticket-seller for the past ten years, said he feels he has no choice but to continue working, despite fears he could end up in jail.

“It’s not fair because the company hired us and gave us machines to sell tickets to the tourists… You put people on the job and they get tickets, harassed and arrested,” said Doumbouya, who uses his earnings to support four kids, his parents and other family back home in Senegal.

According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, which administers the vendors' licenses, there are only 853 total licenses available in the city at all times. With thousands of people already on the waiting list, the agency stopped accepting new applications, a spokeswoman said.

One Gray Line vendor, 44, said he’s most concerned about what he’d tell his sons, aged 11 and 4, if anything were to happen to him.

“Everyday I say, ‘Don’t do anything bad.’ But now one day they hear that their father is arrested? They cannot understand,” said the native West African, who has been with the company since 2006.

“He’s going to think you did something [bad] on the streets. We just came to work,” he said.

City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who chairs the City Council’s Consumer Affairs committee, said that, just like another recent ruling concerning food trucks, the court decision appears to have raised new questions that need to be addressed.

“These are legitimate businesses and if the law is not allowing them to conduct business in an orderly and reasonable way, then we need to take a hard look it,” he said, stressing that the most important thing is to have clear rules that are consistent enforced.

But Sean Basinski, the director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, which represents vendors across the city, was less sympathetic, saying that it’s about time that the ticket-sellers have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“On the one hand, we don’t like to see people arrested just for making an honest living…  But for years, it has been an exception that’s been applied to these big corporations,” he said of the previous interpretation of the law that treated tickets differently from other services and goods commonly sold on the streets.

“Now they’re kind of in the boat with everyone else,” he said.

NYC & CO, the city’s tourism wing, said that, when it comes to the buses, the city seeks to strike a balance between what’s good for business and other goals.

“Double-decker sightseeing tours are a quintessential part of the visitor experience — and we want these businesses that offer these tours to be able to continue to operate across the City,” they said in a statement.  “However, we expect all businesses within our industry to operate within full compliance of the law and in a manner that is positive for residents, businesses and visitors.”

A representative for the ticket sellers’ union did not return a request for comment.