The Uber and Lyft Driver Who Chased Love Across the Ocean | Backchannel
When Guillermo Fondeur immigrated to New York, he wanted one thing: a flexible job that would let him spend maximum time with his family. Driving for a patchwork of rideshare apps worked perfectly, right up until the moment that it didn’t.
It began with a love story. Guillermo met his wife at 21, when he was fresh out of the Dominican Naval Academy. Lorda, a year younger, had immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the US as a child, and was on vacation from her job as a healthcare aide. When the two met at a dance club one evening, it felt like kismet: They spent the rest of Lorda’s vacation together. By the end of her trip, they were in love.
What followed was a whirlwind romance conducted across a 1,500-mile distance; within seven months, they were married. A few months later, Lorda gave birth to their son. Still living in New York, she sent Guillermo an application for a green card.
The application process was onerous and dragged on for over two years. The distance started to wear on the couple: Lorda was only able to visit Guillermo twice a year, and he was often dragged away on naval missions when she was in town. Guillermo, by his own admission, wasn’t behaving well. (“I was living over there by myself; you know how sometimes a man goes crazy.”) In 2000, shortly after the birth of their second child, a daughter, they separated—but Lorda agreed to continue with the green card application so that Guillermo could visit their children, Jason and Rachel.
When Guillermo’s green card finally came through, he took a 30-day leave from the navy and flew to New York. He stayed with Lorda’s sister and picked up shifts at her brother’s bodega; in his off-hours, he took Jason and Rachel to see the sights—Times Square, Shea Stadium, Central Park. Meanwhile, Lorda refused to see him: His interactions with the children were mediated by his mother-in-law. But Guillermo didn’t resent Lorda. He knew the separation was his fault. He was patient for a while, hoping that she would forgive him and take him back. He didn’t move to New York, but he did continue to visit—a process made much easier thanks to his new green card.
By his second visit to New York, Guillermo was dating someone new. That was a wakeup call for Lorda, who realized she was losing her husband for good. She took it all back: She told Guillermo that she wanted to give him another chance; she said she dreamed of them raising a third child, together in New York. After a dramatic dissolution of the love triangle, that’s exactly what they did.
When Guillermo immigrated in 2002, he arrived to a different New York than the one he’d visited the previous August. The city was reeling from the September 11th attacks. A place that had once held so much promise now felt ominous and difficult to navigate. He’d thought he might work as a security guard, but he needed a special license, and to get the license he needed a bank account—which he had trouble getting without a job. When he did land a security job, he was disappointed to learn that it had no room for growth—hardly ideal, as he and Lorda had plans for a third kid, and Lorda wanted to go back to school. So Guillermo quit.
He soon found a job at Kmart, and was eventually promoted to a manager position, making over $60,000 a year. A second promotion to a store in the Bronx netted him another $10,000. But the brutal commute from central Brooklyn to the Bronx left him with virtually no time for his family—and what was the point of having immigrated, he thought, if he barely saw Lorda and the kids more than he had when he was living 1,500 miles away? So—again—Guillermo quit.
This time, he would do things differently. He wanted to be his own boss—to control his schedule and not ask for permission to go on a family vacation or attend a meeting at his daughter’s school. He started driving for a Gowanus-based car service in 2004, shortly after the birth of his third child, and for the next several years, that gig allowed him to turn his attention toward helping the rest of his family excel. Lorda returned to school to get a college degree; Jason started high school; Rachel was accepted for the sixth grade to a competitive college prep school near their home; and Camille, the youngest, won admission to a prestigious charter academy. Guillermo drove her to school every morning, soothing her as she fretted over making new friends.
But as his family’s dreams took off in the late aughts, Guillermo’s own career was facing another roadblock. He switched to a new car service in Park Slope, which he found to be rife with nepotism: All the best jobs went to friends and family of the dispatchers. He grew resentful and frustrated; he considered switching careers again. So it seemed like a godsend when Uber burst onto the New York scene in 2012. The startup, like so many of the on-demand apps that would follow, was promising flexible self-employment, with sky-high rates. Guillermo realized he’d be able to reduce his hours, spend more time with his family, and make more money than ever before.
For a couple of blissful years, Uber delivered on its promise. There was a small number of drivers, so Guillermo didn’t have to compete in an oversaturated market; he could drive for 40 hours a week and make $1900—enough money to support his family. But in 2014, the startup started slashing drivers’ rates. Guillermo had invested in a premium car, a Toyota Highlander, so that he could earn the higher Uber Black fares, but he started getting hit with cheap UberX rides, too. He felt betrayed. When Lyft launched in New York that summer, promising meaty signing bonuses, Guillermo jumped ship. And when Juno arrived in 2016, wooing drivers with the promise of equity, he leapt again. Each time, he was disappointed. He was starting to see the gig economy for what it really was: A way to amass an unsalaried, cheap workforce that could be deactivated with the push of a button.
“You always think the next thing will be better,” he says. “But in the end it’s all the same.” It hasn’t all been bad—he loves talking to passengers, and once gave a ride to Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican musician he’s long admired—but it’s hardly the cushy gig he was promised when he signed on in 2012.
In the last year, Guillermo has gotten involved with the Independent Drivers’ Guild, putting pressure on New York’s rideshare apps to become more driver-friendly. He’s hopeful, though realistic: “Maybe everything will get—not perfect, but a little better,” he says cynically.
These days, Guillermo drives about 55 hours a week and takes home about $1100 each week. It’s not quite as much as he needs—and a far cry from the $1900 he used to be able to make in a 40-hour week—but he refuses to let another job keep him from his kids. Those kids, by the way, are doing phenomenally well. Jason, a college graduate, is now beginning a career in advertising; Rachel is finishing a degree in psychology and considering medical school; and Camille is on a full ride at an elite private boarding school in Massachusetts. She wants to go to MIT and become a software developer.
Guillermo can’t help but smile at the irony. Maybe, he thinks, she can code a better version of Uber.
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