Toronto taxi drivers say city's lack of guidance likely contributed to COVID-19 spread

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Toronto taxi drivers say their health and safety has been an afterthought in the city's response to the pandemic. 

Taxi and rideshare drivers have been deemed essential workers during the pandemic, but are in the unique position of having no choice but to break physical distancing rules in order to do their work. 

In Toronto, 10 taxi drivers working at Toronto Pearson International Airport have died since the beginning of the pandemic. Six of those who died had confirmed cases of COVID-19, and four had presumed cases of the disease, according to Rajinder Aujla, president of the Airport Taxi Association. 

In Beck Taxi's ranks, which make up approximately 40 per cent of Toronto's taxi fleet, there have been six confirmed cases of COVID-19, and all have recovered. Beck's operations manager Kristine Hubbard told rabble.ca that all of those drivers are now back at work and the company has no more active cases. 

One of those drivers is Amir Sepasi, who tested positive for COVID-19 on May 8. Had the City of Toronto provided more information and resources earlier on in the pandemic, Sepasi said he thinks he might have been able to avoid contracting the disease. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Sepasi said it was very difficult for taxi drivers to find proper cleaning supplies to sanitize their vehicles, not to mention personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. In place of anti-bacterial wipes or spray which he could not find in stores, Sepasi was using watered down bleach to regularly clean his car. 

In an emailed response to rabble, a city spokesperson said "the City and Toronto Public Health can provide advice and guidance to businesses who choose to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, however like all essential businesses on the Provincial list, it is the responsibility of the business to determine their operations."

The spokesperson also said that  "workers have the right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe to themselves or another worker."

Sepasi also said it was next to impossible to find a public restroom to wash his hands in, because most establishments had closed their washrooms to the public. In early May, the city installed some public toilets and hand-washing stations throughout the city, but Sepasi said that where he regularly works in North York, he hasn't noticed the difference.  

Another Beck taxi driver, Seghen Abraham, said he has taken to carrying a bottle of water and a bottle of soap with him, and using them to wash his hands at the side of the road after he drops off each passenger. 

While Sepasi and Abraham have done all they can to protect themselves and their passengers, with Sepasi often wearing two masks to transport passengers, Beck taxi driver Lincoln Samuels said a lack of leadership from the city on best safety practices during the pandemic means there are inconsistencies among the behaviours of both drivers and their passengers, increasing the risk for COVID-19 in the industry. 

As independent contractors who were deemed essential workers early in the pandemic, taxi drivers do not have an employer or a union to assist and guide them in protecting themselves and their passengers. The industry is regulated by the City of Toronto, and drivers pay a yearly licensing fee of $1,129.16. 

"There's just no advocacy for them," Hubbard said, adding that she had to press the city to get any information about how taxi drivers ought to be protecting themselves and their passengers. Hubbard said the initial unwillingness of city officials to give information felt "deceiving." 

Hubbard said it was "really difficult" to hear indirectly from Toronto Public Health in March that if individuals did not have access to a car and needed to be tested for COVID-19, they were instructed to take a taxi or rideshare.  

The city said to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Toronto Public Health provided information for those using taxis and ride sharing vehicles. 

On April 17, CTV published a story about taxi drivers' outrage over the city advising residents who needed COVID-19 testing and did not have their own cars to take taxis or rideshares. 

That same day, Dr. Eileen de Villa, who has been a spokesperson for Toronto Public Health for the duration of the pandemic, addressed "a recent concern shared by taxi drivers in our city" who were worried about being exposed to COVID-19 as they transported passengers to and from hospitals and COVID testing sites. 

"If people are advised to use taxis, yes, our chance of transmission among drivers will definitely increase," said Abraham. 

In addition to the recommendation that those who needed tests and other COVID-19 related care take taxis, de Villa advised passengers taking taxis to "ensure the windows of the car are open, sit in the back seat and wear a mask, scarf or face covering over your nose and mouth. If you are travelling by taxi or car service, record the company name and licence plate." 

Instructions for passengers was one thing, but specific protocols for drivers were yet to come. Sepasi said the information given to the general public surrounding COVID-19 was not enough for taxi drivers. 

While the city has since released a fact sheet with COVID-19 safety recommendations for taxi drivers, the document was not published until May 13, over one week after it was reported on May 5 that 10 taxi drivers working Toronto Pearson Airport had died. 

When asked if the city had done enough to support drivers throughout the pandemic, Samuels laughed. 

"The city has done nothing for us really," he said. 

Behrouz Khamseh is the president of Taxi Owners and Operators, an industry association established in 2018. He is also the owner of the Toronto taxi service A4U, and is a driver himself. 

Khamseh said drivers have been left alone to make their own decisions during the pandemic, and that the lack of guidance and further health regulations indicates to him that the city doesn't care about taxi workers. 

Some drivers are installing a plexiglass barrier between the front and back seats of their cars. 

Sepasi recently installed one himself, something he said he did not think was necessary at the beginning of Ontario's lockdown because he did not think the pandemic would last as long as it has.

Hubbard said Beck has been providing its drivers with information on where they can get plexiglass barriers installed, as well as providing drivers with gloves, masks, and advice on which disinfectants to use. Beck drivers confirmed that was the case. 

But Samuels said not every taxi driver can afford to install a barrier right now. 

"There should be incentive from the city for us to do something. We're not making any money in this either. I'm making less than half of what I usually make," said Samuels. 

Samuels suggested the city should provide a grant or rebate for the installation of plexiglass barriers in taxis, for instance, or otherwise help to alleviate some of the costs that taxi drivers remain beholden to despite either having their cars parked or experiencing a significant drop in business. 

"They could even do something about the license renewal [fee]," Samuels said.  

Samuels -- who has been driving taxis in Toronto since the 1980s -- said that a laissez-faire approach to engaging with taxi drivers is not new for the city. Because a lot of drivers are racialized immigrants, he said their industry is often an "afterthought." 

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Saim/Flickr

 
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