Guest Column: Pandemic Puts Tow Drivers in Limbo

Tow truck drivers are still considered "essential" workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with declining traffic, fewer tows, and bigger health risks, drivers in the industry are facing difficult financial decisions. Image courtesy of Washington State DOT, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Tow truck drivers are still considered "essential" workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with declining traffic, fewer tows, and bigger health risks, drivers in the industry are facing difficult financial decisions. Image courtesy of Washington State DOT, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Even though travel has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers in the transportation sector are still expected to show up for their jobs. The situation is putting tow truck drivers for the nearly 400 Massachusetts tow companies in a difficult position – do we risk our health for work when there’s little work to do, or file for unemployment?

Under Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s guidelines on essential workers, tow drivers fall under 7 of the 22 classifications pertaining to transportation and logistics. In other words, tow drivers are essential.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is math, and in many cases the math looks ugly for drivers and owners alike. It’s a percentage game: the fewer people there are on the road, the less need there will be for a tow. Therefore, unlike some essential industries that have seen an uptick in business and some that have even seen a need to hire additional employees, the towing industry faces plummeting revenue from a major decrease in demand.

In many industries, the decision to work or not work has been made simple. Most have either been labeled “essential workers” and continue to work, or have been able to adjust and work from home while continuing to earn. Others have been told by the government that they can’t work, but are eligible to collect unemployment.

When combined, these groups cover a significant segment of the workforce that’s able to survive financially. Unfortunately, towing doesn’t fit cleanly into any of these categories. There will still be crash scenes in need of cleanup. Essential workers from all industries can’t hide from the realities that can come with owning a vehicle. People will still break down on the roadways. Vehicles will have flat tires and powerless batteries when people need to make that grocery run. Tow drivers will indeed remain a needed commodity. They just won’t be needed as often – or paid as much – as they were before the virus.

Statistics recently given to WBUR show highway travel in eastern and central Massachusetts is down 68 percent compared to the same time last year. These stats show the Mass Turnpike in Auburn with a 49 percent drop, which is drastic, yet pales in comparison to the 77 percent drop in the tunnels connecting Boston to East Boston.

These are startling numbers for the towing industry, as they’ll likely correlate directly with similar declines in tows. A majority of drivers get paid by the tow, and not by the hour. A repossession driver gets paid per vehicle because the banks and dealerships pay the company per vehicle.

An independent company who contracts with AAA usually pays their drivers per tow because that’s how AAA pays the company, and insurance companies who work with independent contractors often do the same. Police tows are no different. Companies don’t get paid to be on-call for the police, they get paid when and only when they tow a vehicle.

A solution isn’t as simple as changing to hourly pay. When a company tows for a police department or roadside service company, the contracts often require round-the-clock availability. Asking a company to pay its drivers hourly on a 24-7 schedule when there’s little to no revenue during many of those hours might be good for the driver, but it’s terrible for the company, so in many instances it’s not happening. Cutting back on drivers and laying some off while keeping others might also sound logical, but there are complications with this as well.

If a company maintains three full time drivers to cover the 168 hours in a week, this averages 56 hours per driver. Cut one of those drivers and you’re now asking the other two to increase their availability by 50 percent while most likely making at least 50 percent less. This creates a situation where the best option for a driver is actually being laid off, especially with the extra $600 per week the stimulus provides. This puts business owners in the bind of almost having to punish workers by keeping them employed, or potentially go out of business attempting to keep them justly compensated.

Financial uncertainties aren’t all that plague tow drivers during these tumultuous times. With every tow, they put themselves at risk of catching COVID-19. They’ll touch customers keys, door handles, steering wheels, and shifters. They’ll sit in their seats and breathe the air in the vehicle immediately after the customer was doing so. Of course, they’ll wear gloves, but they’ll still have to take those gloves off and put them somewhere before driving the truck, then pick them up with their bare hands and put them back on at the next tow.

To top it off, many customers ride in the tow truck to the destination – after all, you can’t leave a customer stranded on the side of the highway if they don’t have the ability to secure a ride. And if they do get sick? Let’s just say employer-provided health insurance doesn’t run rampant through the tow industry. So, if you were a tow driver, would you want to continue working under these conditions, or would you want to collect unemployment and do what’s in the best interest of you and your loved ones?

While other essential industries are rightfully getting praise and financial assistance, the tow industry and tow drivers are seemingly being left behind. Eventually, we’ll return to some semblance of normal. When we do, we’re going to need a functioning tow industry to keep our streets clear and safe. If our local, state, and federal governments don’t do more to keep these workers and companies viable, that might not be the case.


Warren Vaughn is a freelance writer with experience and interests in civil rights and social justice, racism and tribalism, athletics and sport in society, transportation and infrastructure development, education reform, and social service reform. Website: PowWow.Vip Twitter: @PowWowVip

 

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