John Fitzpatrick has worked as a taxi driver for so long that he can’t exactly put his finger on when he started.
“I think since either 1982 or maybe it was ‘83, thirty-something years anyway,” he says, speaking on the phone last Wednesday.
As with most other taxi drivers in Dublin, this year has been like nothing Fitzpatrick, 73, has seen before.
On Saturday 1 August he returned to work since he took his car off the road six months previously, in March.
Despite the fact that he wasn’t working, he still had to pay his insurance, a taxi licence fee, car loans and other costs.
“I had a car just sitting out there that was costing me a lot of money,” he says.
Upon his long-awaited return to work this month, Fitzpatrick was disappointed with what he saw — many of the passengers who were getting into the car were not wearing masks.
“I’m not going out again,” he says. “You could be lying in bed on a ventilator and saying, ‘I wonder was it the eight euro fare that I got this [Covid-19] from?’”
The current working environment is not safe enough for vulnerable drivers, says Fitzpatrick. While this might be the case, some say that drivers over the age of retirement may have more financial pressure to get back on the road as fast as they can.
Older and Younger Drivers, What’s the Difference?
Jim Waldron, spokesman for the National Private Hire & Taxi Association, thinks that older drivers are more likely to go back to work than younger drivers, for financial reasons.
“Over-66 [year-old] taxi drivers only get their old-age pension. They would not have qualified for the Covid payment,” he says.
The full state pension is currently €248.30 a week.
Taxi drivers below the age of 66 are eligible to apply for the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment, the highest rate of which is €350 a week.
A taxi driver who is 50 and receiving the Covid payment will think two things, says Waldron. They’re thinking of their health, and then they consider that there isn’t enough work available anyway.
But it is a different story with taxi drivers over the age of 66, who account for 23 percent of taxi drivers, he says.
“He [the older taxi driver] is thinking of all the bills and costs that are running up so he is going to go back as opposed to the driver that is getting 100 quid more than him,” he says.
It isn’t really fair on the older drivers, says Waldron.
Not Safe to Go Out, Difficult to Stay at Home
On the day Fitzpatrick returned to work, a group of young girls got into his taxi without wearing masks while he was wearing his own.
“I said to them, ‘Are you not afraid of not wearing a mask?’” he says.
Fitzpatrick was taken aback by the response that he received.
“They were cheeking me over it,” he says.
The National Transport Authority (NTA) has not made it mandatory for people to wear masks in taxis.
A spokesperson for the NTA said: “Whilst not yet mandatory, everyone in a taxi, hackney or limousine should wear a face covering.”
So Fitzpatrick thought about the possibility of supplying masks in his taxi for customers that don’t have one with them.
“But Jesus, do I really want to get into that? When you’re driving a taxi at night time or any time for that matter, you don’t want to piss them [customers] off. You never know what sort of personality they have,” he says.
Another consideration he had was to install a screen in his taxi.
But he decided against it as a screen would get in the way of having a conversation with the customer, which is a big part of the job, he says.
A Call for Action
Waldron, from the taxi association, sent a letter to the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport on behalf of the National Private Hire & Taxi Association, Irish Taxi Drivers Federation, Taxi Alliance of Ireland, and Taxi Tiomanai Na hÉireann.
The letter recommends actions he thinks would improve the current situation for taxi drivers, which include a “buy-back” scheme.
This scheme would allow taxi drivers to rent or sell their licences to people looking to enter the industry, says Waldron. Currently, taxi drivers are unable to transfer their licences to other people.
“There is a financial barrier to exiting our industry and indications are that older or vulnerable drivers would retire if their investment into the taxi industry could be recouped,” Waldron says in the letter.
This scheme would allow older taxi drivers to leave the industry without as much of a financial burden, says Waldron.
When asked if the NTA would consider introducing the scheme the spokesperson said: “all measures which may be of benefit to the industry during the current pandemic, are being considered.”
The taxi drivers are also calling on the government to stop issuing new taxi licences, and for the introduction of cashless payment technology that won’t come at a cost to drivers.