SC fuel prices stiff for blue-collar workers

Small business owners who must drive to make living are hit hard

ColumnistMarch 7, 2012 

  • The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Rock Hill on Tuesday was $3.53. Elsewhere, the average cost is higher:

    Tuesday

    Month ago

    Year ago

    S.C.

    $3.56

    $3.36

    $3.36

    U.S.

    $3.76

    $3.47

    $3.50

    SOURCES: AAA, gasbuddy.com

— If Stan Hammond does not drive, Stan does not eat. His building will go dark, and the bank will put a padlock the size of a toaster on the door.

If the owner of Stan's Wrecker Service in Rock Hill does not drive, the bank will put locks on the trucks he has spent 23 years paying for or worse: Another wrecker driven by another guy making money from repossessions will show up and drive off in Stan's truck with a wave for dear old Stan.

So Stan drives.

If Stan's drivers do not drive, their kids and wives do not eat. Hunger makes kids and wives mean. Nobody is going to bring a wrecked or stalled car to Stan and his men. Stan and his guys have to drive and go get whatever is crashed or smashed - that's the whole game.

Stan has to gulp, dig deep and watch his profits fly away as he fills up three trucks each day, every day, with the fuel needed to ply York County's roads day and night.

"My gas bill used to be $500 a week for three trucks," Stan said. "Now I am pushing a thousand. But what am I gonna do? Not go? There's nothing I can do but pay it."

For small business guys, blue-collar guys or no-collar guys who fuel up a lot, the struggle to make a buck has gotten even tougher. As politicians blame each other for rising gasoline prices, those politicians smile and ride around in private planes paid for by rich donors or taxpayers.

"Gas prices are way too high!" says every candidate as he or she prepares to eat a big breakfast while rubbing elbows with rich guys. "If I was in charge, I would do something about gas prices!"

The candidate then steps into an SUV filled with gas he did not pay for himself. The candidate neither drives nor fills the tank.

Politicians promise while Stan spends. And not just Stan. High gas prices are brutal on families, certainly, but small business owners around here who have to fill fuel tanks just to make a dollar know that these politicians have no clue about what gas prices do to them - break their backs.

Businesses can't raise prices every time gas jumps, so the small businessman has to bite the bullet and swallow the loss.

"Gas goes up, what I have to do is eat it," said George Garrison, a Rock Hill plumber for almost 30 years. "Fuel costs way too much. Some days, I could drive 200 miles or more."

Gas prices are up at least 20 cents a gallon from last year at this time, but in the past few months, after a price dip in later 2011, prices have skyrocketed again, with no end in sight.

In so many service businesses - landscaping, the building and maintenance trades, freight handling - there is no alternative but to drive to where the customer is. The only way to get there is a full tank.

And a full tank costs more now - and all these people who work for a living are struggling because of it.

Fort Mill's Adams Services, with a fleet of vehicles to send out each day to handle electrical, heating and air, whatever, has no choice but to pay the cost for fuel. Because raising rates for customers is bad for business, the businessman gets strangled by higher fuel prices.

"High fuel prices make it hard for everybody to make a living," Barry Adams said. "When a truck costs you $150 a week in fuel, and the cost is up $50 a week per truck, that's real money.

"But what can I do, send out bicycles and pull equipment? You pay it."

Cab drivers also have to pay a higher cost that comes straight out of any profit. Cab rates in Rock Hill are set - gas prices go up, profits go down, because drivers have to buy gas. And because the economy is so rotten, tips that are the bonus for a cabdriver are down, too.

"It's harder than ever to make a dollar out here with gas prices so high," said Rita Smart, a cabbie for AAA Carolinas in Rock Hill.

Ernst Borchert, another cabbie, said there is no choice but to pay the high prices.

"The only way to make a fare is to drive and pick them up and take them where they want go," Borchert said.

Trucking companies using diesel face prices even higher than regular gasoline. In some places, the price of diesel has bested $4 a gallon.

Carolina Couriers' Dewey Adams, no relation to Barry Adams in Fort Mill, said there is only one option, though, for his Rock Hill transport business, which dispatches trucks throughout the Southeast - pay through the nose.

"To stay in business we have to be running," Dewey Adams said. "We have to absorb the higher costs. We can't tell a customer we won't haul because fuel is too much. Any business has maintenance, wages, upkeep and that cost of fuel. Right now it is rough."

Every banana, every steak, every gallon of milk, is delivered to a store by a truck that costs more to run today than yesterday. But the small businesses who need to get around really feel it. These places employ real people who have real families. Money spent on fuel is money not taken home for college tuitions, groceries, rent.

Yet what do small businesses do? The owners and employees go to work and pay the higher prices and still try to treat the customer right. Stan Hammond the wrecker service owner still charges $50 a tow like he did last year - and the year before that and the year before that.

"We are hearing gasoline will hit $5 a gallon," Stan said. "That means diesel will be $6. But I didn't stay in business all these years not treating people right. Nobody else has any money, either."

Stan filled the tank in one of his roll-back wreckers Tuesday afternoon, looked at the price, and almost had a coronary. He got into the truck, then stopped. He started to walk into the store.

"Price is so high, I almost forgot something - I have to pay," Stan said. "These fuel prices, to make a living, that's what we do.

"Pay."

Gas prices

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Rock Hill on Tuesday was $3.53. Elsewhere, the average cost is higher:

Tuesday

Month ago

Year ago

S.C.

$3.56

$3.36

$3.36

U.S.

$3.76

$3.47

$3.50

SOURCES: AAA, gasbuddy.com

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