May 29, 2005
In the driver's seat of party on wheels
Special to The Seattle Times
GARY SETTLE / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
It's prom season and Kristi Forcier has more dates booked than Paris Hilton. (In fact, given the nature of her job, one of Forcier's bookings could be Paris Hilton.)
Forcier is a limousine chauffeur.
And this time of year, with proms and weddings filling weekends, the luxury cars at her company, O.T.S. Limousine in Bothell, are booked weeks in advance.
"We're always taking applications, but because of the nature of the beast, a lot of people who call are looking for full-time work, and we can't guarantee we can always give them enough work," says Forcier, 34, who has been in the limo business more than eight years and has also driven Metro buses and dump trucks.
"People do extra driving during the busy season. That's when we're slammed," she said. "In January and February, if you have two cars going out on the weekend, you're lucky."
Forcier works full time, also handling dispatching duties, but she says not everyone can count on a full-time income year-round.
"It's an on-call industry for the most part," Forcier says. "You don't know how many hours you're going to work in a week. If someone were looking for part-time [work] that's relatively flexible, they could pick up some extra cash.
Driving for dollars
How much various jobs pay
Chauffeurs/taxi drivers: Pay varies greatly, depending on factors such as the number of hours worked, tips and geographic location. Median hourly earnings of salaried taxi drivers and chauffeurs nationwide, including tips, were $8.91 in 2002, the most recent figures available.
Bus drivers: Median hourly earnings of transit and intercity bus drivers were $14.22 in 2002 and ranged from about $8 an hour to more than $22 an hour. Pay for school-bus drivers across the nation ranged from about minimum wage to more than $16 an hour.
Truck drivers: Median pay of heavy-truck and tractor-trailer drivers was $15.97 an hour in 2002, with the range from about $10 to $24 an hour. Drivers of light or delivery-services trucks made from about $7 to more than $20.68 an hour.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
"When the work's there, you work your butt off," Forcier adds. "But during a slow time, you wonder what's coming in this week. You're only paid when you're working."
The limousine industry is similar to the restaurant business, Forcier says. Drivers are paid an hourly wage, usually from minimum wage to $12 an hour, and rely heavily on tips. (At O.T.S., she says, clients pay a 20 percent gratuity upfront, based on hourly limousine-rental fees ranging from $65 to $225 an hour.)
Drivers have to supply their own uniforms (typically a black suit with a white dress shirt and tie), pay for a state Department of Licensing physical examination and complete an approved limousine-chauffeur training course.
They must be at least 21 and have a valid state driver's license. They also undergo a background check by the Washington State Patrol.
Even that, though, did not help a group of prom-goers from a Lacey high school who ended up earlier this month with an apparently impaired chauffeur from a Tacoma limo service who arrived 90 minutes late with a banged-up limousine and a mystery passenger.
"That is totally uncalled for and not tolerated" at O.T.S., says Bruce Downey, owner of the Bothell limo company.
Downey says clients should check on a limousine company by calling the state to verify its license and by asking the company for its insurance carrier and policy number. (Every limousine should have a tag that shows it's been licensed and inspected, Downey says.)
As for chauffeurs, Downey says he prefers those with experience.
And that experience includes a wide range of skills some technical, some interpersonal.
"You need a good driving record, good people skills and honesty," says Forcier.
"And diplomacy is a must, especially when you're going out to pick up 14 drunks."
A working knowledge of the area is important, too, Forcier says, but drivers have to watch the clients as well as the road, especially during prom season.
"You've got to keep an eye on your passengers and on their parents," Forcier says. "It's definitely something a lot of people think would be so easy, but it can be quite stressful."
She says one parent of a prom-goer tried to sneak two bottles of champagne into the limo, claiming they were cider
"We don't let kids drink in the limo," says Forcier. "It's still illegal, even if it's in a limo."
Even for legal-age drinkers, there are strict policies and penalties.
"When I show up to a run, and you can tell the people have been drinking, I will say, 'Do you want me to go over the rules?' I tell them if they trash the car, what it will cost. If they do anything illegal, it's an automatic termination."
And if they throw up in or on the car? "It's $500," she says. "If I have to call a mobile steam-cleaning service, that's [another] $450."
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