Best of 2021 | The Plight of the Delivery Worker

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S1: Hey, everyone. Today’s show was supposed to be about the Quran. We were going to talk about what makes this wave different. Biden’s upcoming speech about it and what you can do to keep yourself healthy. But then the wave hit us. We are all fine. But there’s a lot of PCR testing going on where we are. And since we were already scheduled to take a little bit of a break over the holiday, we decided to take that break. One day early, that means today’s show is a rerun about some of the folks who’ve helped us the most during the pandemic. Delivery workers This episode aired right after massive summer storms revealed just how dedicated these folks are unperturbed by gale force winds or flash flooding. Listening now, it’s impossible not to think about how privileged our team is to be able to take our little break, especially to take it a little earlier than expected. So if I’ve got one holiday wish, it’s that all of you listening can give and receive that kind of gift to yourselves and the people around you. One more thing make sure you stay tuned until the end of the show. We’ll have an update on how the fight for delivery worker rights turned out. When Hurricane Ida made landfall in New York, there was this one image I just couldn’t get out of my head. It was video of a delivery guy. He is trudging slowly through waist high water plastic takeout bag slung over his handlebars. Some people saw this guy as stoic out there doing his job, no matter what other people saw him as tragic. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out, Please do not be the person who orders delivery during a flash flood. If it’s too dangerous for you, it’s too dangerous for them. But the delivery workers themselves, they kind of shrugged their shoulders.

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S2: Yeah, they were, I mean, they were not surprised. Most of them worked during IDA for a bed.

S1: Josh Dzieza spent the summer shadowing New York’s deliveryman. He was just about to publish a big piece about them when the storm hit. His article was accompanied by its own IDA image, a delivery guy ringing a doorbell on a handsome stoop, rain pouring down. He is there to deliver a single ice cream.

S2: People called it the worst night ever. Just in terms of damage to bikes, the difficulty of the danger and the lack of financial reward. But I don’t think anyone was surprised that people were out.

S1: I wonder if you were ever able to like, get out on a bike with these workers or whether that was just too hard because they go so fast and they’re so busy all the time.

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S2: Yeah, I initially wanted to, but I didn’t end up doing it. They go extremely fast. A lot of them, you know, what I would ask is that you just let me down.

S1: So leave this to the big boys. Yeah. New York’s delivery workers didn’t always move so fast, and they weren’t always so vulnerable to the elements. But apps like Seamless and Grubhub have supercharged this gig. An electric bike they can go 30 miles an hour is a prerequisite of the job at this point. That’s so you can deliver just about anywhere. And it turns out when your boss is an app, an event like a once in 100 years flash flood, it ups the stakes.

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S2: The worker I spoke to one of them who was out in Iowa, he felt he had to because his ratings had fallen on the app he worked for.

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S1: His ratings had fallen. So it’s like he was. He wasn’t moving as fast or something, so he was bumped down.

S2: Yeah. So if your ratings fall, you end up working in undesirable places like New Jersey during bad times, we’re not working at all. So his ratings were dropping. I take it as an opportunity. He went out, went through water up to his knees. Spike had to pay one hundred and fifty bucks to get it repaired, which wiped out his earnings for that night and ended up getting bumped from the schedule anyway.

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S1: I’m going to give you another way to look at those pictures of delivery guys caught in the torrential rain. Takeout containers strapped to their backs. What have these images? Don’t show a hero or a victim, but instead show an opportunity. An opportunity to ask Is this really how we’re getting our food these days?

S2: Ultimately, when you see something like that, that it’s a policy failure, the fact that workers can’t take time off, that they have to work in dangerous situations is not necessarily on the consumer or will need larger changes to fix

S1: today on the show. Giving a bigger tip is not going to fix what’s ailing tens of thousands of New York delivery people. So what will I’m Mary Harris? You’re listening to? What next? Stick around. Some people have called New York’s delivery workers the invisible 65000. That’s right. There are 65 thousand of them. And while people who deliver food used to work for restaurants now, most of them are gig workers. So instead of dropping off a pizza or some Mushu a few blocks away, they’re speeding 60 blocks uptown to drop off some ice cream or french fries instead of coming back to a home base where they can probably score a free meal. They are scavenging around the city for a place to pee. Josh says the workers he spoke with, they actually liked their freedom and at least at first working for an app paid better than working for a restaurant, but delivery people. They’re also working without a net contracting for apps like Grubhub and DoorDash. Sometimes they work for a bunch of these apps at once, trying to game the system.

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S2: Each one is a little different and has its own little, you know, rewards and penalties. You know, Uber Eats and DoorDash. You have more freedom to pick and choose orders. Uber Eats, you have doesn’t punish you for not accepting orders. DoorDash. It sort of does it all like you lose what they call a top dasher status and get getting sort of top pick of of good deliveries. There’s various sorts of I mean, it’s a game that feels like gambling. You never sort of know what kind of tip you’re going to get, where you’re going to go, how much you’re going to make.

S1: So if I wanted to become a delivery worker, like how would I go about it? Like, what’s a day? Like, how does it work?

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S2: Well, the first thing you’re going to need is an electric bike

S1: that spikes with motors on

S2: them. Yeah, 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 are you. It’s the only way 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 1500 bucks, you know, 2500 after you get second battery and all the other stuff you need, then you sign up for the apps.

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S1: How much do these jobs pay initially and how much do they pay now?

S2: They paid pretty well. You would hear stories in the mid 2010s about about workers who are making 20 30 an hour or something like that, like, like quite well. Now, according to a recent study by the Workers Justice Project and Cornell, when you factor in expenses, base pay is 787 an hour on average. With tips, it’s 12 40. So below legal minimum wage standards in New York

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S1: and the Ab-Soul say people are making twenty five thirty three dollars an hour like 33 is in New York City. But do the workers just say that doesn’t account for everything else we have to pay for?

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S2: I mean, they laugh when they hear that. No, that that that number, even if you accounted for expenses, is extremely high, according to them. And according to the receipts that I’ve seen, I’m not really sure how how they got that number. And one thing to remember is that it only counts time when they’re when they’re literally on a delivery. So now, no waiting time, none of that. And then then when you factor in expenses, it’s it’s much, much lower.

S1: I think part of what’s interesting about your reporting is you really like, articulate this whole world that I didn’t know existed, like 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. So can you tell me a little bit about this other world that’s sort of developed around the apps and the workers because there’s been such a sudden influx of them?

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S2: 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 where they were, there were things that the restaurant had provided, and so they had to build their own infrastructure. And so when one response was to cut deals with parking garage lot managers and create bike storage space and some, you know, become sort of a break room, they set up a table that’s where they can hang out and eat lunch between the lunch and dinner table.

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S1: So it was like a parking spot, but now it’s like an office space.

S2: Yeah. So the one the one I spent a lot of time in, it was just sort of this corner of the garage that wasn’t really good for anything. You couldn’t really fit a car in there. But it had become a break room they stored must have been dozens of bikes. They charge batteries there that installed shelving to charge all their batteries. They eat lunch

S1: and the workers came up with this themselves.

S2: Yeah, yeah.

S1: It’s interesting because I’m tempted to hear about this and think about it as innovative and it is innovative. There’s no doubt about that. But I wonder if you also see that in addition to this impressive ness, it also shows how this infrastructure is very rickety.

S2: 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. They’re contractors. The restaurants are no longer concerned with them because they work for the apps. The city just has ignored them. That’s changing a little bit now with the after the pandemic. But but for years they were just sort of treated as a nuisance. And so they really had to develop the system because they were no one else was looking out for them. And it is. It’s expensive, it’s externalized. There’s a lot of costs of delivery onto the workers. You know, 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 like cold weather gear and their delivery bags. So really, it comes with the cost

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S1: and the cost here. It’s not just monetary. If you watch these workers going from point A to point B, they’re going fast. They’re zipping between cars, going the wrong way down streets, all in the name of delivering your order on time. It’s dangerous during the pandemic, just as so many people were praising them as essential workers. Here in New York, delivery workers started getting attacked, robbed for those e-bikes that are so important to getting their jobs done. The workers have set up an informal infrastructure to help keep each other safe. They have Facebook and WhatsApp groups to track down stolen bikes. You tell the story of this one delivery guy, Nicholas, who walks out from, I think, delivering some food and realizes, Oh my God, my 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 just tell that story because it’s so dramatic? They try to involve the police, but that doesn’t seem to work. And so they’re really on their own.

S2: Yeah, Nicholas tried repeatedly to involve the police, you know, the first time, so his bike was stolen. His brother is in one of these WhatsApp groups and posts a photo of it. And really, remarkably, an hour or so later, someone spots in the Bronx. They tell the guy who’s wheeling the bike down the sidewalk. They fell as he carries it to an apartment building.

S1: And this is like a random person. It’s not someone they necessarily know that well, it’s just that they feel responsible is another delivery person.

S2: Yeah, he has no idea. He doesn’t know who filmed it. It’s just that they, you know, 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 Nicholas goes up there and goes to the building. Five other workers from the WhatsApp group have all sort of joined him in front of the building, and he just calls 9-1-1 review and is told a car is going to come. It doesn’t come. They all go home. The next day, he visits the basically the building, they said, to go to a precinct in Manhattan where it was stolen. He does that and got some paperwork to go back to the Bronx, so he goes back to the Bronx Precinct. They say something. 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 Nicholas, his 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, so you know, he has a remote alarm that he triggered on his bike so you can hear it behind the doors so they know, they know it’s there and they know who took it. And so they’ll wait for hours outside until the guy.

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S1: How many people is this? This is like 10 people, 20 people say

S2: 15 about, huh? And then he comes down and they they surround him and say, You know, 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 after a bit of a confrontation, but are given the bikes back.

S1: Is that a success story?

S2: It isn’t. 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 help get the bikes back.

S1: So you’re really drawing a pretty pointed picture of police abdicating their responsibility here. You must have also talked to the apps at some point and kind of laid out your reporting. You know, here’s what I’m hearing from workers on the ground. I’m wondering how they responded to you.

S2: Yeah, they I mean, the policing stuff I think 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, that that because they have a lot of freedom and flexibility. DoorDash, in particular, always stresses that their workers are part time, tend to be part time as a side gig. And that’s 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 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.

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S1: Are the workers thinking of forming a union? Could they even do that?

S2: Well, they can’t do that because they’re contractors and due to the quirks of U.S. labor law, and they’re not they’re not allowed to. That may change. You know, the Pro Act has a provision that would allow contractors to unionize.

S1: That’s a bill that’s been bumping around Congress.

S2: Mm-Hmm. Yeah, I mean, we’ll see what happens with that. But it’s something people are talking about. It’s the, you know, in lieu of that, they’ve had to organize in this sort of grassroots way that they’ve been doing. But they, you know, don’t have the ability to bargain collectively with the apps.

S1: I wonder how you think about blame in this story, because there are so many different players in this and so many different people with different motivations like there’s the consumer, there’s the app, there’s the restaurant, there’s the delivery worker. And so in some ways, having that many people involved not making it like a one to one transaction between you and a local restaurant. I feel like that that spreads out the blame and it spreads out like where you can get accountability. You know what I mean? Like, how? How do you think about who to hold responsible for the situation the workers are in?

S2: Absolutely. I think I think part of the reason that they are in this 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. You know, 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.

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S1: When we come back, how the delivery workers informal infrastructure could lead to more formal changes. Well, 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 City Hall.

S3: What’s beautiful about this is up from nothing in over a year and in just over a year. One of the largest labor movements of its kind has brought the city to its knees to ensure that we actually respond with action.

S1: The bill they’re hoping representatives pass a package of bills providing rudimentary protections, stuff like being able to set a maximum trip distance or requiring restaurants to let workers use the bathrooms or making sure the apps give workers those insulated food delivery bags. Right now, the workers have to buy their own.

S2: They see it as a start. They are they. They want the higher pay, in particular the restroom access. Those are all helpful. But yeah, the the core issue is that they are contractors without benefits and a dangerous and precarious industry, and that isn’t really going to be addressed by these bills. And they know I think the workers I’ve spoken to, especially the the the the business, see this as a as a beginning. There’s a lot more that they’re they’re pushing for.

S1: It was interesting to me that you spent a lot of time with very particular communities, indigenous folks and folks from Mexico and Guatemala. But then I looked at a recent report that said I think only 30 percent of the delivery workers in New York City identified as Latin X, and it just made me think there’s so many more people to get organized with with these workers, you know, and this particular group may be able to reach out to each other because they share a language and they share our culture, and it might be easier to get them involved in their Facebook and WhatsApp groups. But reaching out to all of the app workers is a challenge.

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S2: Absolutely. There’s a link at large South Asian population, West African, Chinese. You know, one study I saw said there are 25 first languages among among New York delivery workers at one rally I was at. There were a lot of Bangladeshi workers. There were some West African workers. It seems to everyone’s experience. Everyone rides bikes, everyone’s experiencing the thefts. And so it was sort of a an optimal flashpoint that has really galvanized everyone, I think. I think organizing the larger delivery community for political activism will be difficult because it’s so dispersed among different nationalities and languages, but it’s something that the activists are working on.

S1: I wonder when the workers you spoke with noticed that the pandemic was reshaping the work they did and how they noticed that

S2: it’s really it was really interesting to me how little the pandemic came up in conversations like this. 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 was, I mean, other than the thefts which they associated with the pandemic and sort of the streets being empty. But it was the longer distances. They said every restaurant expanded its delivery radius. And so that was their big 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. You know, the apps were saying the city was saying it and they did not feel treated like heroes. You know, for years, they’ve been kind of persecuted by the police. So when you extralegal restaurants are not letting them use their restrooms for the job only 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 to be treated in a way that reflected that rhetoric.

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S1: Yeah. Do you think they’d be organizing in the way they are now? If the pandemic hadn’t happened?

S2: I don’t think so. It’s interesting. I think the pandemic forced them to come together that I think the apps forced them to come together in some ways because no longer being sort of split between restaurants, they had to, you know, congregate in parking garages and things like that. But I think that all just accelerated in the pandemic. More people were using those sorts of spaces. They were the only people on the street. And so there was a sense of community and solidarity around it. And. So I think without the pandemic and sort of all those ensuing ensuing problems that that came out of it, I don’t think that they would be organizing like this and.

S1: Some people might hear our conversation and think this is just a New York thing, like, I live in California, I live in Chicago, I live somewhere else. And this doesn’t impact me, and I wonder what you’d say to someone who’s thinking that.

S2: I think two things I think the first, the these companies are everywhere, you know, especially during the pandemic, they’ve expanded into every city, into the suburbs. It’s really a growing business. And, you know, they might not be on e-bikes, but a lot of the same issues apply. Cars and maintenance, things like that cost they get externalized to workers. I think there’s a general, a general push towards a fast and unlimited delivery wherever you are, that it’s something that you can click a button and not really think about. How can you do like like Amazon? And so I think wherever you see that, you’re going to see kind of an underworld of improvisation and and costs that workers will have to bear and think. The second thing is that this type of work, I think has implications for 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 were, where you are or what your job is, it is helpful to see this as a possible, a possible form the future of work could take now.

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S1: Josh Dzieza, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thanks for having me.

S1: Josh Jezza is the investigations editor at The Verge. Go check out his piece Revolt of the Delivery Worker. And that’s the show since we released this episode in September, New York City Council passed a package of bills to improve working conditions for delivery workers. These measures include a requirement that restaurants let food carriers use their restrooms. And new rules for delivery apps, setting a minimum payment for each delivery trip and letting workers dictate the maximum distance they’ll go to drop off a meal. This episode was produced by Daniel Hewett, Owena Schwartz, Marie Wilson, Kamal Delshad and Davis Land. Missy Davis. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. You can see the new hat I bought for my dog for Christmas. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. Have a great holiday. And stay tuned. We’ve got more favorite episodes to come.