In a Dec. 15 New York Times column, writer Rob Sass mourned the passing of the Diahatsu Charade, a Japanese car sold in the United States from 1988 until 1992.
The last few remaining Charades, he said, are living out their days as transportation for destitute college students or pizza delivery drivers.
Sass may be right on the money. A large number of pizza delivery vehicles on the road today are long past their expected lifespan, and many people who have worked as delivery drivers have gone to extreme lengths to keep their vehicles running.
Volatile gas prices, rising insurance costs and declining hourly wages and mileage reimbursements have all conspired to make pizza delivery and increasingly difficult field in which to earn a living. To help make ends meet, drivers often double as auto mechanics.
"I go through tires, brakes, starters and alternators," said Tom Caplan, a delivery driver near Dayton, Ohio, who responded to a question posed on www.tipthepizzaguy.com, a Web site devoted to pizza delivery drivers. "I do all my own mechanical work, so the job is more lucrative for me, than it is for someone who pays to have their car serviced. Don't forget, things like oil changes come a lot quicker for us."
Caplan prefers old worn-out Fords, because that's what he knows how to work on, he said.
"I've been doing this job since 1986, and it's what has developed my mechanical skills," he said. "I've replaced starters, alternators, brake master cylinders, and more tires than I can count, while on the clock, and finished out shifts where a non-mechanic driver would be sidelined for at least the remainder of the shift," he said. "This job is only worth it to me because I use cheap cars and repair them myself. If I had the overhead of professional repairs, a car payment and with that, the requisite full-coverage insurance, I doubt I'd clear minimum wage."
Declining pay looms
Delivery drivers generally are paid in a combination of an hourly wage, a mileage reimbursement and tips. Add all three together and drivers can make $10 per hour or more. Out of that, though, drivers pay for their own gasoline, car maintenance and insurance. The mileage reimbursement, or "run money," paid to drivers varies from store to store, even within pizzeria brands. Reimbursements generally range from 75 cents to $1.25 per delivery, depending on the operation. On a busy night, a driver can make as many as 25 or more deliveries.
And while some operations have added or reinstated delivery fees to their orders, that money has had little, if any, impact on mileage-reimbursement increases.
Gas prices topping $4 per gallon earlier this summer hit delivery drivers hard. Compounding the problem was that as gas prices rose, tips declined.
Insurance rates are on the rise as well. According to the Insurance Information Institute, rates are up 7 percent this year.
And perhaps most serious of all, many drivers are facing wage cuts as operators consider changing pay scales. In an effort to counter hikes in the minimum wage, several pizzeria companies have switched to a wage-tip credit system, similar to the manner in which restaurant servers are paid. Under a wage-tip credit system, drivers make less than minimum wage during the time they are on a delivery, with their tips credited to make up the difference.
"Gas reimbursement and the specter of sub-minimum wage pay are the two biggest concerns to drivers right now, bar none," said "LoneStar," a delivery driver with more than 20 years' experience, in response to a question posted earlier this year on tipthepizzaguy.com. "Minimum wage and IRS mileage rates are the least that are acceptable in this industry. Anyone who thinks they can't pay that should think about getting out of the business."