Maybe you saw the video of a New York delivery guy during Hurricane Ida, trudging slowly through waist-high water, plastic takeout bag slung over his handlebars. Some people saw him as stoic. Others saw him as tragic. But the 65,000 delivery workers like him saw it as just another day on the job.
Josh Dzieza calls that a “policy failure.” Dzieza, investigations editor at the Verge, just reported a piece about the sprawling, hidden world of New York’s delivery workers, whose jobs have gotten way more demanding and dangerous since apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash took over the market. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Dzieza about the unique challenges of the job, the workers’ nascent organizing efforts, and what it all says about the future of work in America. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: People who deliver food used to work for restaurants. Now most of them are gig workers. Instead of dropping off a pizza a few blocks away, they’re speeding 60 blocks uptown on an e-bike to drop off ice cream or fries. Instead of coming back to a home base where they can probably score a free meal, they’re scavenging around for a place to pee. The workers you spoke with said they actually like their freedom. But they’re also working without a net, contracting for apps. Sometimes they work for a bunch of them at once, trying to game the system.
Josh Dzieza: Each one is a little different and has its own little rewards and penalties. Uber Eats and DoorDash, you have more freedom to pick and choose orders. Uber Eats doesn’t punish you for not accepting orders. DoorDash sort of does—you lose what they call Top Dasher status, getting top pick of good deliveries. I mean, it’s a game. It feels like gambling. You never know what kind of tip you’re going to get, where you’re going to go, how much you’re going to make.
So if I wanted to become a delivery worker, how would I go about it?
The first thing you’re going to need is an electric bike. The bike that most workers in New York use, it’s called an Arrow, and it’s just a heavy-duty mountain bike with a battery on the back as a throttle that goes up to a bit under 30 miles an hour. And that’s what they all use. Every worker said it’s the only way you can do enough deliveries for long enough to make a living at the job. So once you get that, which is quite expensive—it’s 1800 bucks, 2500 after you get a second battery and all the other stuff you need—then you sign up for the apps.
How much did these jobs pay initially, and how much do they pay now?
They paid pretty well. You would hear stories in the mid-2010s about workers who were making $20, $30 an hour or something like that. Now, according to a recent study by the Worker’s Justice Project and Cornell, when you factor in expenses, base pay is $7.87 an hour on average. With tips, it’s $12.40. So below legal minimum wage standards in New York.
In your reporting you really articulate this whole world that I didn’t know existed, all of these garages and repair shops and places around the city that I wouldn’t know about because I’m not a delivery worker. Can you tell me about this other world that developed around the apps and the workers because there’s been such a sudden influx of them?
Yeah. So the core thing to remember about the apps is that when workers switched from restaurants to apps, they had no more shelter, they had no more access to restrooms, they had nowhere to store their bikes. They lost all these things that you wouldn’t even really have thought of as perks of being a delivery person, but they were. They were things that the restaurant had provided. And so they had to build their own infrastructure. One response was to cut deals with parking garage lot managers and create bike storage space and some sort of a break room. They set up a table where they can hang out and eat between the lunch and dinner lull. … They stored, it must have been, dozens of bikes. They charged batteries there. They had installed shelving to charge all their batteries.
And the workers came up with this themselves.
I’m tempted to think about it as innovative. But in addition to this impressiveness, it also shows how this infrastructure is very rickety.
Absolutely, I think it is innovative and impressive and resilient and kind of inspiring that they’ve come together as a community to support each other. But they’ve had to do that because they’ve been failed by every other institution. You know, the apps are not concerned with them. Their contractors, the restaurants, are no longer concerned with them because they work for the apps. The city just has ignored them. It’s changing a little bit now after the pandemic, but for years they were just sort of treated as a nuisance, and so they really had to develop the system because no one else was looking out for them. And it’s expensive. It externalizes a lot of costs of delivery onto the workers. They have to pay for a garage, which is 100, 120 bucks a month. They have to maintain their bike. They have to pay for all this cold-weather gear and their delivery bags.
If you watch these workers get from point A to point B on their bikes, they’re going fast. They’re zipping between cars, going the wrong way on streets, all in the name of delivering your order on time. It’s dangerous. During the pandemic, New York delivery workers began getting attacked, robbed for those e-bikes. They set up an informal infrastructure to help keep one another safe. They have Facebook and WhatsApp groups to track down stolen bikes.
You tell the story of this one delivery guy, Nicolas, who walks out from delivering some food and realizes, oh, my God, my bike’s been stolen, and he goes through this whole saga and he ends up intersecting with the folks behind this Facebook group. Can you tell that story?
Yeah. So his bike is stolen. His brother is in one of these WhatsApp groups and posted a photo of it, and, really remarkably, an hour or so later, someone spots it in the Bronx. They tail the guy who’s wheeling the bike down the sidewalk. They film him as he carries it to an apartment building. … [Nicolas] doesn’t know who filmed it. It’s just that they’re all delivery people, they all ride bikes, they all live in fear of having a bike stolen, and so they are always on the lookout for something suspicious.
So Nicolas goes to the building. Five other workers from the WhatsApp group have all joined him in front of the building, and he just calls 911 repeatedly and is told a car is going to come. It doesn’t come. They all go home. The next day he visits the precinct near the building. They say to go to a precinct in Manhattan where it was stolen. He does that. He gets some paperwork, is told to go back to the Bronx. He goes back to the Bronx precinct. They say they’ll send someone. They don’t send someone. So he just sort of runs around the city trying to get help from the police and nothing happens.
But then several days later, someone else in the group has a bike stolen. It has a GPS and it shows it to be in the same building that Nicolas’ bike is in. And so a much larger group gathers. They again try the police several times. They go back to the Bronx precinct several times, can’t get any help. And so they decide to hold a stakeout. I mean, it’s quite remarkable, the detective work they did. They got surveillance footage. He has a GPS signal. He has a remote alarm that he triggered on his bike so you can hear it behind the door, so they know it’s there and they know who took it. And so they’ll wait for hours outside until the guy comes down.
How many people is this?
Fifteen, about. And then he comes down and they surround him and say, we know you took the bikes, we have you on video, please give them back, we don’t want trouble. And the guy eventually agrees and they all run upstairs after a bit of a confrontation but are given the bikes back.
Is that a success story?
It is and it isn’t. I mean, it’s dangerous. It worked out well in that case, but it very well might not have. I think a success story would have been, at some point during their many attempts, the police get involved and help get the bikes back.
What do the apps say?
The policing stuff they rightly say is a city issue. That’s their view on it. The other issues—I mean, they insist they pay workers well. They say that they’re contractors, they have a lot of freedom and flexibility. DoorDash in particular always stresses that their workers tend to be part time as a side gig. And some of that might be more true elsewhere than it is in New York. In New York it’s overwhelmingly a full-time job. I think they don’t acknowledge the work that workers are doing just to be able to do the job. And I think they’re very resistant to doing that.
Are the workers thinking of forming a union? Could they even do that?
They can’t do that because they’re contractors, and due to the quirks of U.S. labor law they’re not allowed to. That may change. The PRO Act has a provision that would allow contractors to unionize. We’ll see what happens with that, but it’s something people are talking about. In lieu of that, they’ve had to organize in this grassroots way that they’ve been doing. But they don’t have the ability to bargain collectively with the apps.
There are so many different players in this—the consumer, the app, the restaurant, the delivery worker. I feel like that spreads out the blame. How do you think about who to hold responsible for the situation the workers are in?
Absolutely I think part of the reason that they are in the situation that they’re in is because as things currently work, no one is really responsible for them. And I think that means there’s a lot of blame to go around. I think consumers need to be more aware of the labor behind their actions, some of which is enabled by just things like software interface design, where it doesn’t really make a point of showing you how far away something is you’re ordering. I think the city and state and government in general shares a lot of the blame for letting these companies grow for so long, unregulated, without really analyzing how they’ve changed work and how some of those changes could have really negative impacts on workers.
While contract delivery workers can’t necessarily form a union, they can advocate for themselves through protests and rallies. They held one just this week, at New York’s City Hall. They’re hoping representatives will pass a package of bills providing rudimentary protections, like being able to set a maximum trip distance, requiring restaurants to let workers use the bathroom, and making sure apps give workers insulated food delivery bags—right now, they have to buy their own.
They see it as a start. They want the higher pay, in particular the restroom access. Those are all helpful. But, yeah, the core issue is that they are contractors without benefits in a dangerous and precarious industry, and that isn’t really going to be addressed by these bills.
I wonder when the workers you spoke with noticed that the pandemic was reshaping the work they did and how they noticed that.
It was really interesting to me how little the pandemic came up in our conversations. They knew they were working through the pandemic and that it was dangerous and a lot of people got sick. The main thing that they talked about—other than the thefts, which they associated with the pandemic and the streets being empty—was the longer distances. They said every restaurant expanded its delivery radius, and so that was their big complaint about the pandemic. I think at the same time, they were very aware of all the rhetoric around being heroes. The apps were saying it, the city was saying it, and they did not feel treated like heroes. For years they’ve been kind of persecuted by the police. When e-bikes were illegal, restaurants were not letting them use their restrooms. So the job had only become more difficult at the same time everyone was talking about these heroic essential workers who are feeding the city. And I think that was pretty galling for them. And they started to think about what it would mean to be treated in a way that reflected that rhetoric.
Some people might hear our conversation and think this is just a New York thing, this doesn’t affect me. And I wonder what you’d say to someone who’s thinking that.
First, these companies are everywhere, especially during the pandemic. They’ve expanded into every city, into the suburbs. It’s really a growing business. And they might not be on bikes, but a lot of the same issues apply—cars, the maintenance, things like that, costs that get externalized to workers. I think there’s a general push towards fast and unlimited delivery wherever you are, that it’s something you can click a button and not really think about how it gets to you, like Amazon. And so I think wherever you see that, you’re going to see kind of an underworld of improvisation and costs that workers will have to bear.
The second thing is that this type of work has implications for all workers. I think these companies have been very effective in organizing large workforces quite efficiently. And I think we are seeing similar forms of precarious labor in other industries. And so I think that no matter where you are or what your job is, it is helpful to see this as a possible form the future of work could take.