In 2013, Saru Jayaraman founded One Fair Wage to put an end to the tipped minimum wage, which, One Fair Wage has found, perpetuates racial and gender disparities in the hospitality industry. Those disparities only worsened during the pandemic, as restaurants closed and the prospect of earning a living from tips became even more precarious.
With her newest book One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America, published in the fall of 2021, Jayaraman furthers the movement. With each chapter, she highlights the ways the tipped minimum wage exploits workers from a particular job category, including restaurant servers, delivery drivers, nail technicians, and more. In this excerpt from the book, Jayaraman details one delivery worker’s experience and interrogates the failure of tech companies like DoorDash and Postmates to improve wages, and thus, conditions for their workers. — Monica Burton
Vianne Curiel had wanted to be a singer songwriter for as long as she could remember. Music was her passion. “I’ve been writing songs since I was 13!” she recalls. She spent her earliest years across the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis Río Colorado before her parents moved to Yuma, Arizona. “I was a baby. My parents and I lived in an old trailer in Sonora until I was two or three, then they came back to Arizona and they bought a house. My dad was a field worker, and my mom worked for the DMV. From there they slowly saved until they could establish their own car dealership.”
Vianne had dual citizenship and went to Mexico to study communications and marketing at the Universidad Regiomontana in Monterrey. By the time she returned in 2012, she felt that as “an independent artist, I didn’t have funds to pursue my music career.” Her parents weren’t in a position to help her financially. In any case, they didn’t approve of her musical efforts and wanted her to follow in their footsteps and work in the car dealership. “They kicked me out of the house,” she said. “They left me out on the streets. I didn’t know what to do. So I moved to LA with $200.” Vianne always said that she was going to live in LA, but she never thought it would happen like that. She packed her car with the few belongings she had and moved into a studio apartment with her cousin. “She said you have a month to get a job and pay rent.”
Finding a good job in LA proved very difficult. “I started building up my resume, but I couldn’t find a job,” she said. Part of the problem was that her work experience was all in Mexico. Vianne was doing everything she could to survive in Los Angeles. She explained, “I was always tight on money because I wouldn’t make enough, even working four or five jobs. It was very exhausting.” Vianne applied to work as a food delivery worker for Postmates and DoorDash, two relatively recent app-based delivery services. Vianne credits this decision with helping get her back on her feet. “I heard about Postmates from someone I knew in LA, and they said this is easy, quick money.” She found the idea embarrassing at first, but decided she would just go ahead and try it. Embarrassed by her own embarrassment, she thought, “Seriously, I have to become a better human.”
After Vianne filled out the applications for Postmates and DoorDash and underwent a brief training session, “I just got in my car and I started delivering food.” As with most gig economy workers, Vianne continued working multiple jobs. “I was working at Postmates, and I was working for a gym as well. I was working for the gym membership because I couldn’t afford a gym. And then I worked for a meal prepping company where I cooked meal prep for athletes and washed dishes.” Unfortunately, this led her to put her true love, her music career, on hiatus. “I stopped making music for that whole year and got very depressed about it. I didn’t have inspiration or motivation to write songs anymore because I was trying to get back on my feet.” She sees 2017 as a make-or-break experience, “one of the worst years of my life. It was a turning point: either life would break me or there would be a breakthrough and I’d just start all over, start fresh.” Vianne recalled being told that if you make it a year in LA, everything gets easier, adding, “LA is a very expensive city to live in. I can tell you that for sure.”
As gig platforms have taken over the food delivery and ride-share markets, unions and worker advocates have sought to ensure gig workers at least the same protections enjoyed by other workers — and to push back on multibillion-dollar corporations’ desire to maintain these workers as independent contractors exempt from minimum wage, unemployment insurance benefits — which became a major issue during the pandemic — and other benefits and protections guaranteed other workers in their states.
While the companies attempted to posit that these work arrangements created more flexibility for drivers and were an innovative evolution of work, in fact corporations’ attempts to label workers as independent contractors dates back to the New Deal, when companies sought to misclassify first Black workers and then other workers as independent contractors to similarly avoid minimum wage and other protections awarded employees — a trend so common even before the emergence of gig companies it has been labeled “misclassification.”
In part since so many of the newly expanding gig companies were born in Silicon Valley, California, much of the worker organizing efforts to fight misclassification and establish greater protection for gig workers started in California. In 2018, the efforts of unions and worker organizations led to the Supreme Court of California issuing a landmark decision in the case Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. Dynamex stated that most workers are employees and that any company seeking to classify a worker as an independent contractor must meet a stringent burden of proof to do so.
In early 2019 these efforts gained steam with a series of New York Times exposés on food delivery companies such as DoorDash. Among all the harassment, safety, and compensation issues lifted up by these exposés, the one that stirred the most consumer outrage was that several of these companies were deducting the delivery workers’ payments by the amount they were tipped. In fact, these companies were simply emulating the restaurant industry’s subminimum wage system dating back to Emancipation — reducing their workers’ pay based on how much they were tipped. While there has been some debate among worker organizers of gig workers as to whether they should fight to eliminate independent contractor status for these workers completely, there is no debate with regard to whether these workers deserve a full, livable wage with tips on top and all of the rights and benefits that other workers are afforded by their state. Clearly, as long as we allow any industry to use a subminimum wage because of tips, more and more industries will seek to follow suit.
In September 2019, the California State Legislature expanded upon the Dynamex decision with the passage of Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), which required gig platform companies to treat their workers as employees, with all the rights and protections awarded other employees in the state of California, including minimum wage, paid sick leave, workers’ compensation, and other rights. The bill was hailed as a national model for instituting workers’ rights in the gig sector, but the gig platforms immediately pushed back, mobilizing hundreds of millions of dollars to put into Proposition 22, a ballot measure placed on the November 2020 ballot that would not only repeal AB5 but also allow the gig platforms to pay their workers the equivalent of a subminimum wage. The gig companies united behind this ballot measure and launched a public relations campaign to attempt to portray that independent contractor status was necessary to ensure workers’ flexibility — and thus a feature all workers preferred — and also that their measure was backed by progressive and racial justice organizations.
Despite the fact that the pandemic put all of these workers in grave danger while they were offered none of the unemployment insurance benefits given other workers, the gig companies were able to use expensive and sophisticated propaganda to confuse voters. The companies sent out mailers purporting to be progressive voter guides called “Feel the Bern, Progressive Voter Guide,” “Council of Concerned Women Voters Guide,” and “Our Voice, Latino Voter Guide” — none of which are actual organizations — that provided guidance on a number of other progressive ballot measures and a “yes” on Proposition 22. These mailers suggested that U.S. senator Bernie Sanders and progressive women’s and Latinx community groups supported these companies’ attempt to exempt themselves from basic worker protections. The expensive propaganda worked, and Proposition 22 passed overwhelmingly. As a result, until laws pass to overturn Proposition 22, gig workers in California and all states nationwide are subminimum wage workers.
The California fight continues, and unions and worker advocates in other states such as New York and Illinois are now attempting to learn from the California experience to organize and create rights for gig workers. However, these states have an additional barrier that California did not have: a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Even if these states — or any of the 43 states with a subminimum wage for tipped workers — succeeded in passing a bill such as AB5, guaranteeing gig workers the same protections and rights as other tipped workers in their state, they would be paid a subminimum wage since they are tipped workers. It is thus essential to unify these efforts for One Fair Wage — a full minimum wage with tips on top for all workers, including restaurant workers, gig workers, and all of the other sectors currently receiving a subminimum wage — as well as unemployment insurance benefits, earned paid sick leave, paid family leave, and all other rights and benefits.
Vianne recalled using DoorDash first. She received training in the app, and also received a Visa card to pay for food if customers hadn’t already paid. “You just get in your car, you turn on your app, and it gives you a delivery,” Vianne explained, “and you just accept ‘yes.’ And that’s how you start delivering.” After joining DoorDash, Vianne joined Postmates right away. “I [joined] both of them to see which was better,” she said.
She preferred Postmates. “I felt like I got my money’s worth. I used Postmates more because Postmates has better pay and it’s more lenient. I’m sure Postmates can improve on their pay, but I was making a lot more money.” Vianne explained that at Postmates, she was able to receive all of her tips. “People would always leave tips. It was very rare for people to not leave a tip. Sometimes, they would give me $2 or $3, but they would give me something. Sometimes, people would tip me up to $150 or $250, you know, it was amazing.”
At DoorDash, on the other hand, “it felt like I had a set pay for each delivery.” DoorDash is one of a handful of companies that have publicly defended and received public criticism for their policy of discounting tips from workers’ pay. For example, Vianne explained, “DoorDash might offer a higher $12 delivery fee per order. Let’s say they tip me $15 or $20 on top of [that]. I’m never going to see the tip because DoorDash just gives me $12.” Since all platform workers are classified as independent contractors, they aren’t covered by the guarantees that tips belong to employees, as was recently added to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Vianne added, “That’s why I would pick Postmates instead of DoorDash. Because Postmates would do that, the rate plus whatever the person gave you in tips.” In 2019, the CEO of Postmates publicly announced his support for One Fair Wage and the company’s commitment to ensure that tips would not be discounted against worker payments.
Vianne was shocked by DoorDash’s 2019 announcement that it would continue to discount tips from the delivery payment, a policy it has reversed and then reinstated multiple times. “People are not gonna want that. This should be a platform that’s win-win. This is a win-win situation when you pay people right. When you get paid well, you even do the work with pride.” She remembers her initial feeling of embarrassment. “I had to learn, and I had to grow, and take pride in what I do. So every delivery I would try to do my best, greet people, smile at people, and do my job because I was representing the company that sustained me.”
However, despite being able to receive tips on top of a delivery fee at Postmates, Vianne still faced multiple challenges delivering for both companies. For one thing, the pay was not enough if customers did not tip on top. Vianne once delivered a Starbucks order to one well-known celebrity. Starbucks has changed since mobile ordering, but at the time, “you had to go in, order the drinks, pay, and then you wait for the drinks [to] deliver to the person. I was so upset because he didn’t give me a tip. What the hell, dude! Even if it’s just one dollar, give something. Don’t just not tip.”
Customer abuse was also a problem. “I was delivering a big banquet,” she recalls. She had to pick up the order from an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. “It was a big order. I got there three or four minutes late to pick up the food.” The manager, who was white, shouted at her, “Who the hell do you think you are coming so late? This food needs to be in right now. Hurry up! And where’s your Postmates bag?” Vianne replied, “The food’s not going to fit in the Postmates bag.” The manager shouted at her that she didn’t care. Vianne told her, “You are not going to talk to me like this. I am doing a delivery, and you have no right to talk to me like this.” The manager threw the plates at her.
Beyond tips and customer abuse, delivery work itself is difficult and stressful. Vianne said, “In LA, it is very hard to actually find parking when you deliver food. There’s never parking.” At times Vianne would get so stressed out that she would cancel an order. “Sometimes it would get so crazy that there weren’t even places to park and it was hard. . . . It is easy money to work for this type of company, but it is also a hustle. You have to go pick up the food, and sometimes the food’s not even ready. You have to wait, pick up the food, and then go deliver it for someone.” The platforms have responded by integrating orders, “so, if you’re nearby, you pick up two or three deliveries at the same time.”
Parking tickets were particularly frustrating. “I remember I had to park at a meter one day and I put a quarter in the wrong meter and got a ticket. It was like $60 to $70 in Beverly Hills. I remember clearly that day. I was very upset. I thought, You know what? I’m done.” The wear and tear on the car was an additional worry. Vianne said to herself, “You are putting miles on your car. You are wasting gas. You are risking your life on a daily basis because living in LA you can get in a car accident. God has been with me along the way, but I think I added 40,000 miles in a year or year and a half.”
Vianne was working 12-hour days, from morning to night, to make ends meet. At most she could do three deliveries an hour, but it was difficult due to the traffic. “Supposedly, you would be making about $20 to $25 an hour, but it was very, very rare. It really depended on how fast you were, how good you were, and if traffic was okay.” The platforms would offer weekly bonuses to incentivize deliveries. “If you hit 75 or 80 deliveries Postmates would give you $500 [total], but they’d give you four days just to accomplish it. It would take you the whole day, but I did it.”
The work was overwhelming at times. “I remember I would deliver food for people and I would see them just lying in their bed or sitting on their couch, doing nothing, just watching TV and ordering food. I remember saying, one day I’m going to have that. I’m going to be able to do that. I’m going to have my own couch, sit on my couch, do nothing, just order food in.”
Vianne finally decided to follow her family’s lead back into the car business and was hired to work in the internet department at a Hyundai dealership. She now has a one bedroom apartment in Koreatown with parking, a rarity in Los Angeles. At first she still worked at Postmates as well because she wasn’t making enough money and needed to pay off multiple parking tickets. She left the company just months before it was acquired by Uber — which makes the company’s relatively more progressive stances uncertain. She was promoted and is now working on her music. “I’m doing amazing, and really good things are coming towards me. And now because of these jobs that I got, I said it’s time to get back in my music career.”
The elements of a delivery job that are constant are: “nasty weather, dangerous encounters with cars, and long hours for wages and tips that can fall well below the minimum wage.” For restaurant tipped workers, the dependence on tips leads workers to tolerate behaviors they otherwise would not; for delivery workers, the reliance on tips often leads them to work in dangerous conditions.
Bicycle-based delivery jobs are among the most dangerous jobs. In Boston, a study of bike delivery workers found that “70 percent had suffered an injury resulting in medical attention or lost work, including fractures, sprains, and strains.” If workers are injured during a delivery, their status as a private contractor and their reliance on tips often forces them to lean on friends and family members when they cannot ride — and as independent contractors, few have access to health insurance. Many delivery workers also “depend on the goodwill of bicycle mechanic friends or sympathetic bike shops to keep them working (and thus eating) as their bicycles wear out from near constant use.”
The instituting of surge pricing to incentivize delivery workers to go online during “peak” periods had only made it more dangerous for the workers. Peak periods are often during moments of inclement weather, rainy days, and blizzards. In extreme instances, the consequences of racing for tips, especially during inclement weather, can be fatal. Caviar couriers have shared that during torrential downpours they have received an encouraging “peppy, emoji-adorned message” from the company that reads “when it rains the orders POUR on Caviar! . . . Go online ASAP to cash in!” On a rainy afternoon in 2018, during a moment of surge pricing, a young Caviar delivery worker was racing to drop off orders when he was struck and killed by a car. Caviar, like other delivery platforms, profits “off the vulnerability of independent contractors much the way . . . restaurants have long profited off the vulnerability of” tipped workers.
Working as a delivery worker has long meant facing dangerous working conditions. But the gig economy has amplified existing dangers and inequalities, by adopting and proliferating the subminimum wage while eliminating traditional protections. Many platform-based workers now depend on tips to make ends meet, with tips at times comprising nearly 100 percent of take-home pay.
Traditionally tipped industries have created a new model — one that other industries looking to skirt the traditional responsibilities of an employer have emulated. Tech corporations’ use of the subminimum wage is only the tip of the iceberg. The emerging industry’s embrace of a subminimum wage signals the growing use of tips as wage replacement across many different sectors. As long as the subminimum wage for tipped workers is allowed to persist, the country runs the risk of seeing new categories of workers enter the subminimum wage universe.
Copyright © 2021 by Saru Jayaraman. This excerpt originally appeared in One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.