This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
In late April, New York City Mayor Eric Adams joined food delivery workers and the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection in Times Square to mark a historic moment. When gig workers in New York City signed on the next day and began rushing bagels, burgers, and bags of groceries to high-rises and walk-up apartments, a few critical things would be different, Adams announced. Unlike the people delivering for DoorDash, Uber Eats, and other apps all over the country, New York City-based workers be guaranteed upfront information on routes, pay, and tips for each delivery, among other new protections.
“These are the men and women who made sure your families were able to shelter in place safely,” Adams said at the rally, where many workers congregated while wearing camera-equipped helmets and bags made to keep pizza and French fries warm. “They delivered for New York, and now we’re delivering for them.”
The new rules are part of the final implementation of a law passed by the City Council last September. But that legislation didn’t simply show up on workers’ doorsteps; it was the result of nearly two years of organizing by delivery workers.
Exactly one year prior, members of a pandemic-borne movement dubbed Los Deliveristas Unidos brought together thousands of workers in to march through Times Square to call attention to their plight. Workers had been repeatedly exposed to COVID-19 while customers stayed home safely and food delivery app companies’ revenue rose. They endured extreme weather, violent attacks, and traffic accidents, while covering all their own expenses, bringing home what often amounted to less than minimum wage. The Brooklyn-based Workers’ Justice Center of New York helped Los Deliveristas Unidos get organized, and the subsequent City Council legislation was a direct result of their actions.
In February, nine smaller advocacy groups that represent both food delivery workers and the city’s thousands of ride-share drivers announced the formation of Justice for App Workers, another coalition that will extend the movement’s reach.
All of this is happening amid a broader labor uprising, but it’s particularly notable because app-based delivery workers are not employees. While companies have been pouring millions of dollars into making sure they won’t be legally required to put delivery people on payroll, these workers are organizing for their rights.
“What drives the organizing is the issues... and the issues are the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re... an employee or an independent contractor,” said Hildalyn Colon Hernández, director of policy and strategic partnerships for Los Deliveristas Unidos. “The three most powerful, most energetic organizing campaigns of workers across the country are at Amazon, Starbucks, and delivery workers. What they have in common is the same poor working conditions, benefits, and low wages.”
While their status as contractors makes it harder to organize traditional labor unions, groups including Justice for App Workers say that over the long-term, they are working toward doing so. A 2019 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling made it easier for employers to classify employees as contractors, which means they are not covered by the federal law that guarantees the right to unionize. Nothing in the law prevents them from unionizing, but they are not protected from employer retaliation. And in December 2021, the NLRB announced it’s considering reevaluating the ruling,
Dachaun Nie is a worker with the International Alliance of Delivery Workers, one of the founding members of the Justice for App Workers Coalition. He said that a union could help workers secure benefits like healthcare and give them a stronger, unified voice. “If we can have a union, there will be someone who can can speak for us,” he said.
Although food delivery workers in different parts of the country face different challenges and have varying demands, many say they are continuing to fight for better jobs even as the attention they commanded during the early days of the pandemic has waned.
“Essential but Unprotected”
Most food service workers earn hourly wages. Many are undocumented immigrants who aren’t eligible for the same support as other Americans and they take home some of the lowest wages in the country. So when COVID shut down restaurants in early 2020, a loss of income meant most of those workers couldn’t just stay home. As demand for at-home meals spiked, many turned to Postmates and Grubhub and began delivering food, Hernández said. Some had already been delivering food in addition to working in restaurants to make ends meet, she said, but it soon became a full-time gig for many.
In 2021, Los Deliveristas Unidos worked with Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School to survey 500 app-based food delivery workers in NYC. In September, they shared the data in “Essential but Unprotected,” a report that laid out the conditions driving workers to take action. Workers, the majority of whom were immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, and South Asia, reported being denied bathroom access during shifts, paying out-of-pocket for medical care when they had on-the-job bike accidents, and being harassed by restaurant employees and customers.
Safety is one of Nie’s top concerns. He has driven for Uber and delivered food for various apps and is now organizing mainly Chinese immigrants through the International Alliance of Delivery Workers. Once last year, Nie said he arrived to pick up a rider immediately next to a crime scene where another Uber driver had just been shot. “My whole body was shaking,” he said. On May 10, the coalition is holding a memorial for app workers who have lost their lives due to accidents, violence, COVID, and suicide.
Still, Nie said that low wages are the number-one concern among the workers he organizes. “It’s very hard. They are working 10 hours a day, and they only make like $150 or $200,” he said. In recent months, he said, workers delivering for apps that cater to Chinese restaurants and communities like ChowBus and HungryPanda, have been reporting that rates per delivery change often and have been going down overall.
In the Los Deliveristas Unidos survey, low pay was by far the biggest concern cited by workers: 64 percent reported that they worked six or seven days a week, and the average hourly net pay, with tips included, was $12.40. New York City’s minimum wage is $15 per hour.
Workers are also responsible for their own expenses, including the e-bikes most NYC delivery workers use, batteries and maintenance for those bikes, helmets, monthly data plans, and insulated bags. The new NYC laws will require companies to cover the bags, but the overall expenses reported in the survey averaged out to $339 per month.
Outside of densely populated cities, most food delivery workers travel by car, so recent surges in gas prices have also been incredibly hard on workers. “About 50 percent of the offers that I see are ones in which there is no feasible way to profit,” said Vanessa Bain, an Instacart shopper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “You are either going to break even, or more likely than not, you’re going to lose money by taking it.”
Bain started the Gig Workers Collective in 2016 to help Instacart shoppers organize for fair compensation. That year, the company tried to remove tipping, but reinstated it after the organization led a boycott. And they’ve successfully fought other changes to the pay algorithm that cut wages since then.
“There have been many, many instances in which Instacart either reduced pay, removed transparency, or otherwise manipulated or tweaked our earning capacity,” Bain said. “Shoppers have responded with ... action, and we get a concession almost every single time.” Still, she said, Instacart’s pay per delivery is now completely driven by a proprietary algorithm, which means the company can “shave off a few cents” or make changes to how and how much shoppers get paid at any time, without disclosing those changes.
In the Bay Area, she said, the number of people working in the app-based food economy at any given time is so high that when she logs onto Instacart, she has to wait for an offer to pop up and then make a split-second decision about whether or not to accept it — even if it might not pay off — before another shopper snaps it up.
Unlike in NYC, where Los Deliveristas Unidos found most food delivery workers are doing the work for 40 hours or more each week, Bain said she has been seeing fewer people working for Instacart in the Bay Area full-time.
“As the profitability and sustainability of this work has slipped further and further away from us, there are not as many people who are able to do this work full time and pay their bills and stay afloat,” she said. As a result, organizing workers within the Gig Workers Collective has gotten harder, as people cycle in and out of the job quickly.
Still, Bain has a core group of about 1,000 members, she said, and the group’s main focus is on fixing what she calls “misclassification.” She believes that under California law, app-based food and grocery workers should be classified as employees and that the state has not been enforcing the law. Under AB5, app-based delivery workers were supposed to be classified as employees, but a law approved by voters in 2020, which was heavily backed by companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, exempted those companies from the law. Both laws are tied up in court battles.
“This is dangerous work. It’s expensive work. And the onus of responsibility of the true costs of the work should not be on an individual worker, which is essentially the model that they have established,” she said. “To me, anything short of proper recognition of our employment status is not going to address all of our actual needs.”
However, some surveys have found that many app-based workers around the country prefer the freedom of being classified as independent contractors. In NYC, Hernández said many of the workers involved in Los Deliveristas Unidos prefer it to restaurant jobs they held before, where they typically had no control over when and for how long they were scheduled to work. They can pick their kids up from school in between shifts, for example. And while the pay can be low and unpredictable, it may be preferable to wage theft at the hands of abusive bosses, which is common in food service. As one DoorDash worker expressed in a Facebook group for “Dashers” recently, “I left working horrible fast-food jobs for this.”
Whether or not food delivery companies can continue to avoid making delivery people employees, everyone Civil Eats spoke to said Los Deliveristas Unidos and Justice for App Workers will continue to fight for local worker protections. The new laws that make some changes are just being implemented, and Dachaun Nie said he and the workers he organizes have yet to see the effects on the ground.
On April 28, Los Deliveristas Unidos announced it will launch a training program with the Harry Van Arsdale, Jr. School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College. The program will provide financial, technology, and street-safety training for food delivery workers. At the same time, the group is developing a “Deliverista Hub” with the help of Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), which will consist of a network of locations that provide services including a training center, restroom access, and e-bike charging and repair.
Despite the long odds, the workers are improving their circumstances. Will they follow in the footsteps of unionizing food workers at places like Starbucks? “That is the ultimate goal,” Hernández said.
• The Next Frontier of Labor Organizing: Food-Delivery Workers [Civil Eats]