Personal Stories of America at Work
How an Unemployed Worker Built New Foundation after Lay Off
Chauffeur Tony Garcia rebuilds his life after devastation in the construction industry
Like a scene from Up in the Air
I’m a limo driver now, but I spent over two decades in the construction industry. I worked my way up from apprentice to foreman to assistant supervisor, and finally, to a desk job managing people and estimating jobs. I was paid to catch mistakes, which are very costly in construction. In one year alone, I found over half a million dollars worth of errors. The company rewarded me for my work, and I was living the high life, like taking the kids to Disneyland and staying at nice hotels. I thought I had a secure job.
One day in 2009, I was called into a conference room at work. The HR lady was there. It was like a scene out of that George Clooney movie, Up in the Air. “Here’s your package, here’s your last check, and here’s whatever is left of your vacation. Here’s the layoff package we set up.” I was in shock. I showed up at home, and my wife asked, “Why are you home so early?” It was terrible. I had never been laid off.
Later that day, my wife and I picked the kids up at school. They were surprised to see me. My wife and I explained that I hadn’t lost my job because I’d done a bad job, but because of the economy. I told them we were going to be OK, but that things were going to change. We weren’t going to do the things we used to do, like going out to movies and restaurants as often. My son asked if we would have to go on welfare. I said no, that I had paid into the unemployment insurance system for a long time, and we would get some money from that until I could find another job.
Pounding the pavement for a year
I immediately started calling people I knew in the construction business. They said, “We’d hire you, but we’re laying people off too.” So I began looking at other options. Every morning I’d wake up, make my kids’ lunches, send them to school, and then spend the morning looking for jobs on the computer. In the afternoon, I would fill out applications at different places, come home and do the house chores, and cook dinner. I put my name in at countless places, went to numerous interviews, and kept getting trapped in the same elimination process again and again: twenty people show up, it’s whittled down to six, and I’m not selected. This was my life for almost a year.
During that time, I coached my daughter’s soccer team. They really kept me going. To those sixteen girls, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t employed. I was still the coach. I worked hard to make them all work as a team. They knew that I’d lost my job because their parents told them, but they never acted like, “Poor Tony.” If it weren’t for the soccer team, I’d have been really depressed.
To tell you the truth, it was kind of nice to make my kids their lunches and get them to and from school. I’d never been able to do all that before. I was more involved in their lives, and it really brought us closer. My own dad spent his life in construction and never had a slow time in his work. My parents were born in Mexico, and all seven kids were born here.
Working a month for no pay
My wife suggested I look for a job as a chauffeur since I’ve always liked driving. I’ve been working as a limousine driver for about eight months now, and I like it. I found the job on Craigslist. I went to the interview, and more than twenty people were already there. I thought, “Oh, no. Here we go again.” I sat down, and the manager said there were fifteen openings. I took a head count and thought, “I have a chance!”
They liked me and offered me a month-long training opportunity. But I had to pay $195 to start it, and there was no guarantee of a job at the end. If I passed the training and worked for ninety days, I would get my money back. My wife and I talked about it and decided I needed to give it a try. I was one of the lucky six out of fifteen trainees and passed with flying colors.
Turn up the music if you’re going to mess around
Mostly, I do a lot of airporters—taking business people from their home to the airport. I also drive for weddings, quinceañeras, and birthdays. I make about $30 on a run, and I try to do at least three a day. If we get tips, we can keep them. But only about half the passengers tip. For example, yesterday I did two runs and only made $60 for the day’s work. Prom season is like Christmas for us. The tips are great—you can get anywhere from $80–$100 if you do a good job.
Weddings are funny because people are always in a panic. Bridesmaids running around, trying to find their shoes. If the bride is anxious, I remind her that the wedding can’t start without her. We always carry a little kit that includes a sewing kit in case someone gets a rip in her dress or Krazy Glue in case someone tears a nail.
People often ask me if customers have sex in the back of the limo. Sure, it happens. It’s easy to tell because the car moves, and besides, you can hear everything even if the private screen is up. It’s like a giant megaphone back there. It’s actually even easier to hear with the divider up. You’d think if they’re going to mess around, they would turn up the music, but they don’t, they turn it down!
Being a chauffeur isn’t my dream job. Hopefully construction will pick up again, so I can go back to what I was doing. But I’d probably still do this part-time. I don’t think I’m ever going to see the salary that I used to make in construction again in my lifetime. I think this whole experience has given my kids a better sense of the value of things. When we go to the store to get food for the week, we really look at the prices and compare. We set up a menu for the whole week’s dinners. Before, my wife, who works for a local city government, and I would come home from work tired and get take-out food almost every day. We can’t afford to do that anymore.
I recently won the Chauffeur of the Month award. My boss said I’m one of the only guys who has gotten it this fast. It shows how much I’m really working at this job. I haven’t even been there a year yet. When I used to walk into a store and see those Employee-of-the-Month photos on the wall, I thought they were really silly. But now, I respect them a lot more. You have to realize that you don’t know what’s behind that picture. That person has a family and works so hard. I really admire people who are in the service industry now—it’s a struggle, it really is. Having people truly appreciate my work makes me happy with what I’m doing now.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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