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These days, Annie Fitzgerald spends her afternoons watching soap operas and tending to her rickety lower back. She frets about the two blood clots that stain her right leg. And if she’s not in her Columbia Heights row house, then she’s probably out digging through the D.C. Code in the Martin Luther King Memorial Library or berating her former insurance company in search of some relief for all the damage that’s been done.
On Sept. 11, 1993, Fitzgerald’s 29 years as a District cabdriver came to an end when another hack, who hadn’t completed training and was driving an unlicensed cab, slammed into her after running a red light. Fitzgerald came out of the accident with a mangled right knee.
Like most other hacks in town, Fitzgerald had no health insurance at the time of the crash. Her Medicare policy took care of the X-rays, and she got $6,000 in liability payments from the other driver’s insurance company. That money is long gone, which leaves Fitzgerald scrambling for other sources of compensation.
With no money to buy proper care for her wounds, Fitzgerald resorts to homespun remedies, such as soothing her leg with heating pads and tubs of hot water. Although it’s physically possible for her to drive, Fitzgerald knows she’d be a hazard out on the streets.
“I’m afraid to trust myself out there,” Fitzgerald says.
District cabbies have a growing list of workplace grievances: There’s Mayor Marion Barry’s initiative to rid the streets of taxicabs older than six years, the encroachment of Super Shuttle airport service on the local transportation market, and a requirement that all cabs be air-conditioned. A single thread runs through all the proposals: They each threaten to drain more income from cabbies. The additional costs, claims the Professional Taxi Driver’s Association, are unfair considering that cabbies can’t even afford essentials like health insurance.
Cab companies hire their drivers as independent contractors, a tack that exempts them from paying health insurance premiums. And none of the five District taxi companies licensed to insure cabs offers worker’s compensation, says Jacqueline Smith, acting chief at the District’s taxicab office. As a result, hacks who get rammed, punched, or stabbed on the job have no choice but to fend for themselves.
Most D.C. hacks don’t earn enough to pay for an individual health insurance policy, which can run $5,000 a year for a driver with a family. “They’re interested [in insurance] but generally don’t have the money,” says Mark Luksh of the National Association of the Self-Employed. Instead, they’re busy paying all the fees and expenses required just to get their jalopies on the road: $33 a week for liability, $26.20 every year for the taxicab commission license, $170 every two years for an ID, vehicle registration fees, fleet company dues, radio dispatch dues, repairs, maintenance, and gas.
After paying all the expenses, the average D.C. hack can expect to haul in between $20 and a $100 for one eight-hour day on District streets. That’s just enough to get from one day to the nextprovided you don’t end up in the hospital.
“If you get hurt, you’re shit out of luck,” says Carroll Tavenner, a retired D.C. cabbie. Tavenner worked fares for 40 years before he was attacked by a man who stabbed him in the chest, cut his liver, and shredded his right palm with a knife.
“It’s damn dangerous,” Tavenner says. “When I started in 1948, it wasn’t too bad. Cabbin’ ain’t what it used to be.”
Tavenner says he went through “shit and sweat” to receive some form of compensation. Although he had no insurance, he got a grant from the city’s crime victims’ compensation program at a highly publicized 1988 ceremony hosted by Barry.
If not for that program, Tavenner would not have received a penny of compensation for his bloody encounter. Tavenner continued to drive his cab after the attack before retiring a year and a half ago. He admits it wasn’t the safest career choice, but “if you want to live, you gotta work,” he says.
Cabbies in other major cities make the same choice every dayonly with more protections than D.C. hacks. Cab companies in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston pay worker’s compensation to their fleets of gas pedal pushers. In addition to lagging in worker’s compensation, the District is the only major city on the East Coast where cabdrivers are forced to obtain insurance from a pool of specified companies sanctioned by the District government.
Insured or not, D.C. cabbies flood area emergency rooms with their stab wounds and whiplash cases. “GW bleeds a lot of money to the uninsured,” says an administrator at George Washington University Medical Center. “But this is one group of people who should have health insurance.”
The administrator estimates that the hospital sees 100 hacks a year and has to write off over $100,000 in unpaid bills to uninsured hacks.
While hospitals bemoan forgone revenue and District officials look for new ways to make the cabbie business unprofitable, hacks will continue looking for someone to pay their medical bills. Fitzgerald, for one, is busy hassling her insurance company, which she claims owes her money. And she accuses District bureaucrats of violating an ancient insurance law passed by Congress. Fitzgerald refuses to believe that all avenues for compensation are closed off, and she says she is hiring another lawyer to explore the matter.
Even if she suddenly healed and regained her zest for the hack’s life, she couldn’t just get up and take to the streets. Her once-sturdy taxicab lies beached in a garage. The rust on the fenders and the bumper bear testament to the four years that have elapsed since her accident. Like the car, Fitzgerald’s prospects for mobility, upward or otherwise, seem limited. “I hadn’t planned on retiring this quick,” Fitzgerald says.CP