Rising gas prices put Tri-State contractors in a bind

CINCINNATI — New U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show inflation cooled in April. Still, some drivers are spending half their paychecks at fuel pumps.

“I’m discouraged,” said Marie Grooms, co-owner of Hi-Tech Handyman Services.

Grooms’ crew of contractors survived near ruin when the pandemic forced Amazon to suspend home services. The move kept Hi-Tech installers from customers, eventually causing the owners and their contractors to land on unemployment.

She and co-owner Richard Lakoduk almost abandoned their five-star reviewed company until Costco and Lowes offered them contracts to fix up faucets, drains, ceiling fans and other items for customers as far away as Columbus.

“It’s keeping us busy, which is a blessing,” Grooms said. “But now we’re driving everywhere and gas prices went from two-something to four-something (a gallon). So our money, what we’re making, we’re spending half putting fuel back in the tank.”

Their seven van fleet costs $6,000 to fuel each week, Lakoduk said.

“If my guys are going to (install) a ceiling fan that’s $75, they may spend $45 in gas to go there and come back and it’s not really worth their time,” he said.

To spare workers the headache, Lakoduk and Grooms take the longest drives.

“One day last week we were gone for a total of eight hours,” Grooms said. “Of that actual work time was maybe three and a half of that. The rest of it was all spent driving and sitting in traffic and trying to get gas.”

“I knew this was coming,” Lakoduk said. “It’s the ripple effect of COVID and it’s causing everybody strife right now.”

Over the last 12 months, inflation rose 8.3%, which is lower than the 8.5% figure reported in March. Still, gasoline prices in May continue to surge. One day after hitting records highs in Ohio, some drivers, including Lakoduk, paid $4.39 a gallon for regular unleaded. For Hi-Tech’s owners, it is a new crossroads.

“Now we have to weigh the option: do we add an automatic $20, $25 trip charge to every job that’s within 10 miles outside our radius?” Grooms said. “Or do we just pray that things come back down?”

In Illinois with farmers, President Joe Biden talked about inflation, rising food prices and how exports could ease financial pressure.

“Right now, America’s fighting on two fronts: at home, it’s inflation and rising prices,” the president said. “Abroad, it’s helping Ukrainians defend their democracy.”

While hoping policy shifts help growers, the president said he expects the fight against volatile global supply chain issues related to the pandemic and Russia’s war with Ukraine to continue, according to a White House statement.

In the meantime, Grooms and Lakoduk plan to keep trucking for as long as possible.

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