A Toronto taxi company is considering pumping the brakes on providing service to some high-risk areas for COVID-19 in an effort to protect its drivers.
Beck Taxi CEO Kristine Hubbard says drivers provided their essential service at the start of the pandemic with the belief that people who were sick with the virus were staying home.
They were driving “to deliver [people’s] essential goods, to take them to their essential appointments,” she said.
What they didn’t know, she says, was that they would have to move people to and from COVID-19 testing centres who had symptoms and expose themselves to risk every day.
“These essential workers … have been forced to become frontline [workers] without their consent or without their knowledge,” Hubbard says.
Hubbard says without much support for drivers from the government, she is considering withdrawing service to some neighbourhoods with high case counts of COVID-19 and to testing sites and isolation centres.
Considering withdrawing service to specific high risk locations to protect taxi drivers. Drivers not prioritized for the vaccine. Hospitals calling to have them pick up COVID+ people just to have TPH tell them they have to stay home for 2 weeks right after. This isn’t their job.
Drivers ‘willfully ignored’ amid pandemic: Beck Taxi CEO
Hubbard says the municipal and provincial governments know that taxi drivers have been transporting COVID-19-positive and probable people throughout the pandemic, yet they have not been given the proper recognition or protection.
“We can say that they’ve been forgotten,” Hubbard says, “but the reality is they’ve willfully ignored and used these vulnerable people to do work that isn’t their job at all.”
Ephrem Adhanom has driven a taxi for 15 years. He says working during the pandemic has been hard considering all the unknowns and risks of the job.
“I don’t know if that person has COVID or not. I don’t know how it’s safe,” he says. “The only thing I can do is I have to protect myself and clean my car.”
Hubbard says no matter what precautions drivers and their riders take — be it wearing a mask, a shield or keeping the windows down inside the vehicle — drivers must isolate for two weeks without pay if one of their clients tests positive for COVID-19.
“Not an ounce of benefit … nothing that helps [them] cover that time,” Hubbard said.
Adhanom, who says he is worried about bringing home the virus to his family, says drivers deserve to receive personal protective equipment as well as more training about how to handle driving patients to and from hospitals.
“We don’t get any support from the government,” he says, adding that the licensing fee has increased for taxi drivers in the city amid the pandemic.
Paid time off to get vaccinated ‘critical’
While Hubbard had advocated for city-funded, dedicated transportation at the start of the pandemic — concerned about hospitals and infectious people relying on cabs to take them home — she’s now calling for taxi drivers to be prioritized in the vaccine rollout.
Taxi drivers are included in phase two of the rollout plan as essential workers but Hubbard says they should be treated as frontline.
Jen Quinlan is the director of Flemingdon Health Centre, located in one of the 100-plus prioritized postal codes for vaccines this week.
She says taxi drivers are an essential service, but “a lot of taxi drivers are also residents of hot spot and priority neighbourhoods.”
As of this past week, adults 18 and older who live in priority neighbourhoods are able to get vaccinated.
“As an employer, its so critical we give them paid time off to get the vaccine,” Quinlan said.
Meanwhile, Hubbard says she received an email from a driver on Saturday saying he tested positive for COVID-19 and that the symptoms were severe.
“It’s horrible,” she said, becoming visibly emotional in an interview with CBC News. “All we can hope for is that they recover and thank God everyone associated with our company has.
“But down at the airport, six drivers died. I can’t allow that to carry on without complaint,” she said.