Jenny Garcia waits in her 2007 Cadillac Escalade at the Paris Las Vegas for a passenger named Ron to walk from the front of the hotel, where he thought the Uber line was, to the rear.
Ride hailing in Las Vegas is being hailed as a victory for progress. Many prefer the cheaper cost versus taxis, the suburban service that cabs often don’t provide, and the rating system that prevents the long haul and other taxi scams. And if they don’t prefer it, they’re at least happy to have the option.
Yet the human face of technological progress is never just a smiley one. Garcia was a limo driver who maintains she earned an average of $150,000 per year for the past 20 years and a reputation for fun that led to requests from clients that included celebrities.
As an Uber driver, she estimates, she’s on track to earn about $50,000 this year.
“It’s not great, but if you work it, it’s livable,” she said on a recent evening. “I just won’t eat at nice restaurants or buy expensive clothes like I used to.”
“Ron?!” Garcia screams out the window. “Great, let’s get you guys on your way!”
She opens the door for Ron and his friend, Bob, who are dressed in jeans, work boots and lumberjack shirts. They’re headed downtown to their hotel, the Golden Nugget, Ron says in an Alabama accent. Garcia replies that she used to love the café there.
“Until they got rid of the French dip on their menu,” she said.
Few people know more than Garcia about Las Vegas. She has driven tourists up and down its streets since 1997, when her feisty personality and some family connections won her a job chauffeuring Stratosphere owner Bob Stupak at age 17. Garcia parlayed that into becoming one of the first female drivers for a large Las Vegas limo service in 2002.
“Driving a limo was fun,” she said. “You never know who you’re going to meet. I made a lot of really great connections with people.”
Then there was the money. The company paid minimum wage. But the people who paid $600 for a stretch limo were also the kind who usually tipped $100. And that was nothing compared to the strip-club customers.
“If I were to put 10 dudes in my car and take them over to a strip club, that would be $800 in my pocket,” Garcia said, “and I was doing those drops three, four times a week.”
Then ride hailing launched in Las Vegas in September 2015. Within six months, Garcia’s earnings nose-dived. By the time she quit in August 2016, Garcia says she was down to less than a quarter of her income.
“Uber and Lyft ruined my career,” Garcia said. “I held out for a little while because I still had a little hope because this is something I’m really good at. But then I realized that there’s just no way.”
Debbie Slack, operations manager at Las Vegas VIP Limousines – the last company for which Garcia drove – says people are more careful about their spending, "and when you take a limousine, it’s going to be a little more."
"The novelty of limousines is kind of outdated these days, and that’s a problem for the drivers," Slack said. "When we have conventions in town, corporations are cutting down on expenses and they don’t want employees handing in big receipts: ‘Oh, you took a limousine? Why would you do that?’”
Garcia waited on tables at Chili’s for a month last year, but earned even less doing that and the heavy trays aggravated an old shoulder injury. The bills started piling up and AT&T shut off her phone.
So she joined the main company that put her out of business. Garcia is living by the adage of joining what you can’t beat. Tonight is only her second on the job.
“I have no choice,” she said. “At this point, I need all the money I can get.”
Speaking of which, Ron tells her he has lost all the money he came to Las Vegas to gamble with.
“You should only gamble what you’re willing to lose,” Garcia replies, flashing a smile into her rearview mirror.
Ron agrees and says he’s willing to part with Bob, who has fallen asleep in the back seat, for $75 dollars.
“Depends,” Garcia replies. “Does he cook? Does he clean? Does he pick up dog poop? I’ve got a big dog that poops a lot.”
Tonight will see six more rides over three more hours for a payout of $49.62 (the total fares of $67.78 minus Uber’s $18.16 commission). That doesn’t include $30 in tips – $3 cash from Ron and Bob on their $8.08 fare – but neither does it include the $15 Garcia had to pay the friend lending her the Escalade, as per their agreement, or the $40 that went to Chevron. (As a 1099 contract employee, Garcia can write off all her gas, insurance and car maintenance at the end of the year, but still needs to lay it out.)
“It is what it is,” she said.
Garcia is the kind of person who looks on the bright side. Soon, she’ll have enough money to take over payments on another friend’s 2016 Dodge Dart, which is way better on gas. She’s got more of a personal life now because she can set her own schedule. And the strip clubs still pay ride-hailing cars for dropping customers off – although those fares are less likely to come Garcia’s way because a random person makes an Uber request.
By the time Uber introduces its driverless fleet in five years, dealing what will probably be the final blow to Garcia’s livelihood, she says she’ll be well on to her next adventure. Her dream, for which she is currently setting up a GoFundMe account, is to outfit a bus with solar panels and water recycling and drive it on a Merry Pranksters-like road trip around the country, teaching others how to become self-sustainable while starring in a documentary about the experience.
Until then, there’s reality. Garcia arrives at the Golden Nugget.
“You can go around the block a few times if you want,” Ron tells Garcia. “You’re pretty fun.”