You'd think they would learn. But according to veteran San Diego chauffeur Greg Boss, local limousine companies still engage in practices that have brought class-action lawsuits against four of them in the past seven years. He cites an incident that happened to him and another chauffeur two months ago. The limousine company he works for, which he declines to identify, had a dinner job that required two vans. It had only one van available. So the company's dispatcher called another limousine service for help, a common practice in the industry.
"The kid working for the other company," says Boss, "got out of his van and came over to me while the people were at dinner. And he asked me, 'How come you guys posted this job so cheap?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'My paperwork shows that you booked this at $45 an hour.' " Boss continues, "So I called my dispatcher, and she said, 'No, $60 an hour, and that's what we're paying the other company.' "
At a built-in 20 percent of the job's price, the gratuity the client had paid to Boss's company for the chauffeur was $36, $12 an hour for a three-hour job. By quoting the service at $45 an hour, however, the second company could give its driver a tip of $27 for three hours, also 20 percent. It kept the difference between that amount and the original $36.
At least the second company's driver did not lose wages. "They only cheated the poor guy out of $9 on his gratuity," says Boss, "but that sort of thing happens in this business over and over. It adds up."
Still working its way through superior court in San Diego since 2001 is a class-action lawsuit against La Jolla Limousine by 415 former limousine drivers. The drivers are seeking recovery of "unpaid wages and overtime pay and of gratuity moneys wrongfully withheld by the Defendants," according to court records. But despite having a yearly business of $4,000,000 gross revenues, a profit margin of 62 percent, and no past indebtedness, La Jolla's owner Calvin Steria responded to the lawsuit by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He admitted in court that the reason for his bankruptcy filing was that he faced the class action. In the words of the plaintiffs' attorney David Gallo, Steria's action had "the sole and improper purpose of frustrating jurisdiction of [the] Court."
Last Friday, Judge William Pate awarded the plaintiffs $495,534 in "gross litigation proceeds" -- not yet subtracting court costs. But according to Gallo, due to the bankruptcy filing, the amounts individual drivers can expect to receive in the future remain uncertain. The court will set attorneys' fees on May 26.
The first class-action suit by chauffeurs against a limousine company in San Diego also resulted in bankruptcy proceedings, but not before the court granted compensation to the plaintiffs in 1997. The company went bankrupt, and owner Frank Mattarocci sold it at reduced value to Black Tie Limousine, a Bay Area firm. It still operates in San Diego under its original name, Presidential Limousine.
A year ago chauffeurs won a similar class-action suit against Cloud 9 Shuttle. It was typical, says Cloud 9's owner John Hawkins, that the deal gave the employees pennies and most of the proceeds to lawyers. "One driver actually received 18 cents in the settlement," he says.
But Greg Boss received $2600 in the Presidential settlement. At the time, he had worked for the company a year and half; subsequently, he worked another three years. Now he is awaiting a $200 settlement check from Limousines by Linda. Though he worked for Linda's only one month in 2000, he became part of the class that in 2002 sued the company for lost wages and tips. A year ago, Linda's was purchased by La Costa Limousine, a company Boss has also worked for.
"One of the reasons that these companies get sued is that often they don't pay you completely for your time," says Boss, who maintains that a chauffeur has to work for more than one company at a time to make a decent living. The companies pay a wage, usually the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour, for a "transfer," meaning something like a trip to the airport to pick up and take a traveler home. "And they allot one hour to do that," according to Boss. "But they don't account for time in traffic or time waiting on luggage. One day that I worked for Linda's, I did six transfers. It took me eight hours, but I got paid for six. The companies don't use time clocks. In the lawsuit against them, Linda's was hit for not paying fairly."
Several chauffeurs interviewed complain that when they unwittingly cause a fender bender or put a crease in a limo's side panel at a gas station, the companies deduct the repair costs from their paychecks over time. They do that instead of submitting claims to insurers, because their deductibles are high, sometimes as much as $5000.
If limousine firms have this kind of fractious track record with their employees, one wonders how customers fare in their hands. Boss knows of cases where chauffeurs went to pick up customers in the wrong cars. "Some of these companies purposely overbook during big events like proms, since they can farm jobs out to other companies," he says. Often they give the jobs to smaller operators with older and less luxurious limousines. Then the customer is disappointed, wanting to know what happened to the brand-new limo or the one with specific features they may have picked out ahead of time.
Says Boss, "It makes a big difference, especially when you're paying hundreds of dollars for a limousine. I mean, your kid's prom or mom and dad's 50th wedding anniversary or a wedding, these are special once-in-a-lifetime things. And it's important that you get a nice limousine and you get a good chauffeur."
Not all chauffeurs are honest either. Some have been known to tinker with gratuity amounts, which are written ahead of time on credit card slips. When Boss worked at Presidential Limousine, a customer once tipped his driver in cash and told him to take it off the credit card slip. But the driver left the amount on the slip anyway, hoping the man would forget. A manager at Presidential found out, remembers Boss, because the outraged client called up to complain when he got his Visa bill. Presidential gave the chauffeur a warning. They later fired him, because he tried the same trick again.