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9 workers lose jobs as AAA cancels towing contract
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Gary Owens, owner of Verns Towing in Manteca, has lost his contract as a AAA towing service after a 40-year relationship. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Vern’s Towing of Manteca is no longer an AAA Emergency Road Service, according to its owner Gary Owens who said Wednesday that he had his contract of 40 years canceled without an explanation costing nine Manteca workers their jobs.

The move also means AAA members in Manteca facing what could be 90-minute response time for service.

Owens, who has won “Best of Manteca” awards for the past five years, said he was called down to the California State Automobile Association office on West Yosemite Avenue the afternoon of May 26 where he was handed a printed letter advising him that his contract would be terminated in 30 days.

Owens said he felt like he had been kicked in the stomach and told AAA field operations officer Brad Harris that he would rather terminate immediately and the company could pick up their equipment and signage at his business.  He quickly removed signs from his business and from his trucks, he noted.

A call to the AAA office in Manteca by the Bulletin found that only the corporate office in the Bay Area could speak to the contract cancellation.   A message was left on a voice mail of the press relations officer early Wednesday afternoon asking for an explanation on what caused the canceling of the Manteca road service contract.  As of press time the call had not been returned by a AAA representative.

Owens said the most difficult thing he has ever had to do was to lay off his nine employees – drivers, mechanics and a bookkeeper. The AAA towing operation had grown to some 30 calls a day, 24/7 that he said is going to be taken over by Mike’s Towing in Stockton. He added that a call for road service in Manteca now is bringing an estimated 90-minute response time noting that Mike’s has already had the contract between Stockton and Sacramento with their trucks responding to road service requests for help from members throughout those communities.

He said that one Manteca traffic officer, who didn’t know he was out of business, called from a crash scene asking what was taking so long.  He learned that Owens and his crew were not responding to a dispatcher’s call to clear the roadway after a traffic accident on Yosemite Avenue just east of Highway 99 – some 100 yards away from the tow yard.

Owens explained that police departments expect a tow company to be on site within 20 minutes or they will call the next available service on their rotation list – five remain.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Owens is keeping two of his trucks and has put the four others in a consignment lot in Sacramento in an effort to sell them.  He has also let the lease go on his business location and plans to operate on a smaller scale from a rural Manteca site.

“The bigger (tow) companies are taking over,” he said. Owens added that Reed & Son Towing and Escalon Towing went out first after getting the word early of what was coming. He said they operated from Waterford to Empire.

The tow rigs remaining – none offering AAA service – are Looney’s, Manteca Tow, All-Star and Aaron’s Tow. 

Owens said he hasn’t had a day off in four years working a 12/12 shift.  That’s 12 hours on and 12 hours off. 

“I had to keep going the way the economy was.  If I hadn’t had to pay the fuel taxes, I’d been retired years ago,” he said.  The former AAA operator explained a trip just to Lodi towing a vehicle took 10 gallons of fuel for a net $41 return.

He took a deep breath and said it has been “kind of a relief” because the service wasn’t paying back enough to pay the expenses.

“I made a lot of friends.  I didn’t think of them as AAA customers but as friends, ‘cause I took care of them.  I’ve got a lot of friends.  I think we did pretty good over the years.  They came in to buy junk cars from me – would drive them for a couple years and then come back and buy another one,” he said.

He said many people would blame him for their steaming cars and become irate when he told them the problem couldn’t be fixed on the side of the road.  “I would joke around with them and they would settle down,” he added.

Owens said he is still towing for State Farm Insurance as he has been all along.

He said he believes another tow service in Tracy will be taking some of Manteca’s load.  In addition to the Tracy community they now respond for AAA in Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore and Sunol, he explained.

After Owens was discharged from the service in the late ‘60s he started working part time for Vern’s Tow Service and later he Bob Greer and John Hulsey operated the tow trucks by themselves.

In the Army he was assigned to the Americal Division serving in an air mobile unit mostly on C-130 aircraft with the 16th Artillery and the 101st Airborne.

When he got out of the Army, he made his way to San Francisco.  Owens said his mother thought he was still in Vietnam when he made a phone call home.  It was Mothers’ Day and it was his surprise for his mom as he asked her to give him a ride home from the San Francisco International Airport.