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Delivering Dinner in the Dark

Across the country, delivery app couriers for Caviar, DoorDash, and UberEats face confusion (and the risk of arrest) during citywide curfews

Man carrying a Caviar bag and wearing a mask looks down at his phone in the middle of a crosswalk. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

James* works as a courier for four different app-based delivery services, but in 2012, he drove a yellow cab in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. The city imposed restrictions on traffic into Manhattan, but, as he remembers it, the police department issued a bulletin allowing cab drivers to cross onto the island without a passenger.

“What I recall is that I had a cop stop me as I was driving in over the Manhattan Bridge and I’m like, ‘Wait, I can show you this notice from your commissioner,’ and he just didn’t care. He turned me around and I had to go back [to Brooklyn]. Luckily I picked up a fare right away.”

Caviar, one of the delivery services James drives for now, issued drivers a similar notice in New York amid citywide protests and curfew, he said. “If a law enforcement officer or other public official attempts to stop you from providing delivery services, please show them this advisory linked below,” it reads. James describes the advisory as a four-line memo from Caviar and parent company DoorDash stating that delivery workers are exempt from curfew restrictions.

“If you get stopped by one of these officers, it’s a 50-50 chance — or maybe even worse — that they’re even going to care that you’re showing them this notice,” he said.

His suspicion was proven correct on Thursday night. Several videos posted to Twitter show a Caviar delivery worker being detained by police in Manhattan for allegedly breaking curfew. “It tells me on the app I can show you guys something! It tells me I can show you and you can’t arrest me,” he says, clearly distressed as he’s handcuffed.

Protestors in all 50 U.S. states have taken to the streets, speaking out against anti-Black violence and the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of police and vigilantes. Forty U.S. cities imposed curfews at some point during the last week, intended, officials say, to prevent rioting, looting, and violence. Though many cities had lifted curfews by the end of the week, they remain in effect in NYC, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, among other cities.

In many instances, the implementation of curfews this past week has come with little advance notice or vagueness surrounding which “essential workers” — ie, if restaurant employees — would qualify for an exemption. In Seattle, restaurants were allowed to remain open under the truly vague guidance that they would “not be allowed to have customers”; NYC’s initial guidelines were also unclear if restaurant employees were exempt. (After public outcry in response to the Caviar courier’s arrest, Mayor Bill DeBlasio later tweeted a clarification and apology of sorts: “This is NOT acceptable and must stop. Food delivery is essential work and is EXEMPTED from the curfew.”)

For delivery services, which put their drivers on the roads and thus in public spaces where they’re more likely to be confronted by authorities enforcing a curfew, advising employees of the best guidelines seems paramount, especially as, in some places, they continue to process orders in the hours after the curfew’s implementation. Spokespeople from Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber Eats all confirm that they suspended service in some locations with curfews and maintained it in others, amid guidance from local officials. Each app says it communicates internal guidance with drivers through some combination of email, text messaging, and notifications in the same mobile apps they use to field delivery orders.

DoorDash recently posted a message through its app to Bay Area Dashers — that’s their word for drivers — promising to send updates about area shutdowns and curfew exemptions for delivery workers. It also reassured drivers that they wouldn’t be penalized if a protest or curfew impedes their ability to make deliveries.

“Where possible, DoorDash will remain open should you choose to dash, and we plan to remove any impact to your Acceptance Rate, Completion Rate, Customer Rating that results from this unique situation,” it reads, referring to metrics that it uses as accountability measures for drivers. Dashers need to maintain a customer rating of 4.2 and a completion rate of 70 percent — otherwise they risk being deactivated from the platform. (The completion rate requirement rises to 80 percent on June 20, though the company looks to be making exceptions for drivers who are making fewer deliveries during the pandemic and protests.) The update ends: “As always we hope you will prioritize your safety and security while on the roads.”

Companies say they’re continuing to prioritize driver safety, highlighting already existing features drivers can use in case of emergency. Grubhub and Seamless drivers can contact a “care team” through the app. Uber Eats drivers can share details of their delivery with a friend or family member and access an emergency button through the app. A company spokesperson said Uber had not received reports of any safety-related incidents through its support channels amid the protests.

Shortly after the Thursday night arrest video was posted, a DoorDash representative said the company was alarmed by reports of the arrest. “We are gathering information and are in contact with City officials to determine what transpired. Essential workers must be able to complete their work and feel safe and secure while doing so, and we are prepared to provide them with our support,” the spokesperson said, though did not clarify what sort of support the company would offer.

And although in this instance DoorDash refers to its workers as “essential” within the context of coronavirus restrictions, drivers and couriers for these services are considered independent contractors, not employees. Critics of the practice have long argued that puts vulnerable gig workers at heightened risk: For example, delivery companies are not required to provide benefits like health insurance to drivers. Delivery companies continue to fight for that classification: DoorDash and Uber spent millions of dollars in California to fight a law that reclassifies drivers as employees. A measure proposed by DoorDash, Uber, and Lyft to exempt app-based drivers and couriers from the law received enough public support to land on the November ballot, leaving state voters to decide drivers’ fates.

Drivers who are not given health insurance have to weigh coronavirus and other personal safety considerations while deciding whether or not to go to work. But delivery apps have recorded record usage since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Uber Eats orders showed no signs of slowing in May. The company’s spokesperson declined to share recent order data for cities affected by protests and curfews. Alex Blum, founder and CEO of Relay, a delivery service that operates in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. says he’s seen lower courier turnout in Philadelphia, but not other cities. “In Philadelphia, despite lower turnout, operations have been smooth because many restaurants that were open have temporarily closed and/or are boarded up until things calm down,” he said.

Meanwhile in New York, a June 4 message posted to the Uber Eats driver app again reminded couriers that they are considered essential employees under the citywide curfew. “Your wellbeing is a top priority and we encourage you to prioritize your safety if delivering during this time. Please remember you can cancel a delivery if you feel unsafe at any point.”

The courier arrested on June 4 was eventually released by police when they “verified his credentials.” James, the cab driver turned delivery courier, remembers from his police encounter on the Manhattan Bridge, a note or official exemption isn’t guaranteed protection for workers out after curfew. “You’re stopped by an officer, are they really just going to look at your phone and be like, ‘Okay, carry on?’ You know what I mean?”

Kristen Hawley writes about restaurant operations, technology, and the future of the business from San Francisco. She’s the founder of Expedite, a restaurant technology newsletter that’s existed, in some form, for the last seven years.