Tow truck drivers face thankless job
It's a profession that other folks love to hate...
No one loves a tow truck driver. After five years behind the wheel of one, Johnny Martinez knows what people think of him. A driver for Atlas Towing & Storage — one of San Antonio's many private towing companies — Martinez works quietly and swiftly in parking lots across the city, searching for vehicles that were left where they shouldn't be.
Tow truck drivers face thankless job
But if the industry has drawn ire because the public considers tow drivers predators who profit off the unsuspecting, Martinez's demeanor does not betray the profession in which he works. He's a quiet man, working in a rough, competitive industry. It was one of the only jobs he said he could find to provide for his wife and three children.
Martinez and drivers like him are caught in a controversy that erupted when the city and one its largest private towing companies butted heads over their prices. The company, Bexar Towing, was charging $293; the city says the limit is an $85 base fee.
While it had the most citations for its high fees, Bexar Towing wasn't the only offender. But Bexar Towing sued, challenging the cap and also alleging that the city failed to comply with a state statute that essentially says studies should be done to ensure towing rates are fair.
Other large Texas cities have increased their towing fees. San Antonio hasn't since 2002. A recommendation in 2006 to bump the fee to $113 was shelved.
The controversy has only fed perceptions of towing companies as predators. But the firms say the fee limits are killing their businesses, and that they provide a needed service.
For Martinez, this has meant a $1,500 pay cut on average every month. Yet the workload hasn't lessened. Customers still get angry. They still plead, scream and, occasionally, threaten the drivers.
At first, it was almost easier to let the car go for free. But Martinez soon learned the cost of kindness: Every tow lost was money he didn't take home to his family.
So he learned to keep his emotions in check, both his frustration and his sympathy. The rules are simple: Be polite. Suck it up.
"I kind of feel bad for them, but in the towing business," Martinez said, "you have to leave your heart at home."
It was 8 p.m. on a Thursday when Martinez arrived at the Atlas tow yard, a small triangle of land on Steves Avenue where vehicles are packed together like toys. He'd driven in from his New Braunfels home to work a 12-hour shift.
Dispatchers immediately sent Martinez and other drivers on duty to Promontory Pointe, a large apartment complex near the Medical Center.
Using a lever on a box inside the cab, he slowly lowered the truck's wheel lift, the crosslike fixture that will hold a vehicle in its claws, when he finds one he can tow. With the wheel lift already down, he could shave several seconds off his time if he found a vehicle in violation.
Drivers might patrol 20 to 30 properties a night, spots that include bars and neighborhoods, but mostly apartments, whose names seem fit for imposing mansions: Provincia Villas; Aspen Heights. Chances are good tow drivers will find a car without a permit, parked in a handicap space, or guilty of some other violation.
But at Promontory Pointe, they found nothing.
"There's days when it's completely slow," Martinez said, "and then you're slammed." He once towed 20 cars during Fiesta, his best haul ever in one night.
Almost two hours into this shift, Martinez pulled into the Alta Roxbury complex still without a tow.
Some complexes enforce 24-hour parking rules. Others, like Alta Roxbury, implement curfews. Martinez showed up a few minutes before the 10 p.m. curfew and walked the hilly, winding cluster of 274 apartments. He shined a flashlight into each vehicle, looking for those without permits.
Parking often is a problem at complexes; so permit rules need enforcing, said Amy Glasgow, Alta Roxbury assistant community manager. Residents must agree to inform guests about the parking rules. Signs are posted everywhere.
"We by no means want to eliminate people from having guests," Glasgow said. "But we also want to make sure that people who pay rent here have a place to park, too."
By 10 p.m., Martinez had spotted several vehicles without the proper decals.
The race was on.
It's a job
Martinez never planned to become a tow truck driver.
He had few career choices. He dropped out of high school after ninth grade, a decision he still regrets. He did roofing with his uncle, helping with Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts.
At 30, he struggles with reading and still does not have his GED. He got busted for shoplifting milk and diapers for his daughter in 2004 from a New Braunfels Wal-Mart.
When his wife got a job at Atlas working dispatch, she helped Martinez get his foot in the door.
For his co-worker Shane Cabeldue, the profession was in the family: his dad owned a wrecker service, and his brother works in the repossession business.
"I guess you could say it's in the blood," Cabeldue said, who has also worked for Bexar Towing.
The job is easy, he said, but the money isn't guaranteed. The drivers work on commission. The less they tow, the less they make.
For every tow to the Atlas yard — now $128, including the base fee and additional state-sanctioned storage and impound charges — the drivers get a $31 cut. Because the city's crackdown on private tow fees has meant Martinez loses money every month, he's given himself a self-imposed quota: 60 vehicles every two weeks.
Finding a tow
To get those numbers, drivers must move fast: the window of time to make a tow is maybe 10 to 15 minutes before the owner moves the vehicle, demands the driver release it or else starts a confrontation.
With the help of two other Atlas drivers, Martinez quickly hooked up a gray sedan to his tow truck at the Alta Roxbury complex.
According to state rules, tow companies can't charge people if the vehicles aren't ready for transport. If it is, but the driver hasn't left the lot, the towing company must allow the owner to pay a drop fee, $85 in San Antonio.
In two minutes, it was practically over. One of the two drivers was tying the last yellow strap to a tire when a woman ran up.
"That's me! I haven't even been here maybe 20 minutes," she told them, having just dropped by to pick up her daughter from her mother's apartment.
Confrontations are common. People throw beer bottles. Sometimes older people fake heart attacks.
"People hate us," Cabeldue said. "People look at us like the bad guys."
Men have drawn guns on Cabeldue, and he said he once tackled a man he caught breaking into cars. A teenage girl once pulled a long knife on Martinez, as he prepared to tow her mom's vehicle.
Once, a man broke Martinez's truck window with a crowbar, opened the door, pulled him out and struck him on the back of the neck before driving away. Martinez's wife, working dispatch for Atlas, heard the exchange and called police.
Since 2010, 49 complaints have been filed with the state against Atlas Towing, including cases involving two of its drivers, one of whom no longer works with the company.
According to state records, the company has been fined twice: $2,000 last year for towing a vehicle from a lot lacking the proper signage, and $1,000 last month because a ticket was not issued for each individual tow and the receipt authorized charges unrelated to towing.
Martinez has no complaints on record.
Overall, his encounter with the woman was fairly painless. Her mother paid the drop fee and later complained to the complex management.
Martinez made $21. His night got better. Over the next 8? hours, he towed 11 vehicles.
During a recent shift, chatting with Cabeldue and another Atlas driver, Martinez talked about one day leaving towing, about driving a big rig. He's working toward his GED and a commercial driver's license, and he's heard about good-paying trucking jobs in the Eagle Ford oil fields, where drivers can get paid $20 an hour.
Until then, though, this is his life.