Public Health

Riding into peril at $12.40 an hour

Food delivery workers have it rough, especially in bad weather. But change is coming, starting in New York City

December 10, 2021
Rider biking through bad weather
Only 18% of New York City delivery riders surveyed say they have received bike and personal safety gear from their employers, according to a report published in early September. [Credit: Several seconds | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

A winter storm was bearing down on New York City last December when Gustavo Ajche, a food delivery rider and labor activist, received a notification on his cellphone. The app-based food delivery company he was working for at the time was telling him to pull out his jacket and boots, he says, speaking through an interpreter. “Get ready,” Ajche remembers the message reading. “Tomorrow there will be a lot of money.”

Bad weather is a dilemma for food delivery companies: Fewer riders want to risk biking through snow and rain even as takeout requests from customers skyrocket. 

The companies’ solution? Emphasize the amount of money their delivery riders stand to make if they work when conditions are bad. “This is how apps motivate workers to stay out during those times,” says fellow activist Hildalyn Colón Hernández. “This is what they can do to make a little bit more money.”

Colón Hernández helped write a recent report compiling the experiences of delivery riders in New York. She and her colleagues at the Worker’s Justice Project and the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations surveyed 500 app-based delivery riders, starting in December 2020. Their report paints a grim picture: Food deliverers face harassment and even lack of access to bathrooms. Only a small number of riders describe receiving training in bike or COVID-19 safety. And they do it all for $12.40 an hour on average, more than $2.50 below the city’s minimum hourly wage. At the same time, the cost of living in New York is nearly double the cost in the rest of the country.

But now, thanks in part to the lobbying of activists like Ajche and Colón Hernández, New York has just become the first major American city to pass a package of laws aimed at improving those conditions. In September, the New York City Council passed six bills supporting app-based delivery riders. Now they’re officially laws, having passed the 30-day waiting period without being vetoed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The new rules don’t address all of the issues outlined in the Worker’s Justice Project report. They don’t deal with safety training deficiencies, for instance. But they do address wage issues, increase access to bathrooms, require app-based companies to provide their workers with insulated food bags rather than pay for them out-of-pocket and allow workers to control how far they’re willing to travel for a delivery.

The three new city laws dealing with wage issues may at least partially resolve the rider’s abysmal pay by requiring the app-based companies to make it clear what percentage of tips go to delivery riders, to pay their employees weekly and to establish a minimum payment per trip.

While most of these new laws will take effect by January, two won’t apply until April. That means delivery riders still have several more cold, slushy months without additional protections. In the meantime, the problems identified in the report and addressed by the new laws – and those, like safety training, that remain largely unresolved – will all be at their worst when the weather is bad and the risks for workers escalate. 

Ajche knows first-hand how much riskier delivering becomes in bad weather. While biking through one of the first winter storms of the season last year, he skidded across a patch of black ice and then fell hard on his knee. Unable to ride for 15 days while he waited for it to heal, Ajche had to spend the final weeks of December without any income.

In the prolonged pandemic, delivery riders still have to weigh their safety against their income when deciding whether to deliver during a storm. For some, circumstances can dangerously tip the balance toward preserving income, as was the case for the delivery rider captured on a viral video wading through rising floodwaters during Hurricane Ida with a bag of food dangling from his handlebars. 

Three companies – DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats – dominate the food delivery industry in New York and around the country. Spokespeople for Grubhub and DoorDash (Uber Eats did not respond to requests for comment) said they’re aware of the safety concerns and asserted that they pause operations when the weather is too risky. 

“We will not hesitate to temporarily suspend operations if that is determined to be the safest course of action,” says Grant Klinzman of Grubhub. “This was the case in New York earlier this month [during Hurricane Ida] and we paused locations as needed based on local conditions.”

DoorDash also monitors weather events and relies on direction from local communities and officials when deciding whether to pause service, according to a written statement from the company. But DoorDash also acknowledged that it moved too slowly to suspend incentives for delivery riders during Hurricane Ida. The company said it is working to improve future responses.

However, DoorDash contests other parts of the Worker’s Justice Project report. For example, while the report states that most of the delivery riders it surveyed reported making less than the city’s $15 minimum wage, DoorDash contends that the average is $33 per hour if they’re on a delivery in Manhattan. The new laws promise to partially resolve this disparity. 

Activists like Colón Hernández and Ajche are now pushing other cities to follow suit, even as they shift their focus to protecting worker safety. Ajche says that the Worker’s Justice Project has been making an even more concerted effort to hold educational safety sessions and to give away free gear, like helmets, to workers.  

Although there is more to do to ensure the safety and fair treatment of delivery riders, Ajche, Colón Hernández, and the rest of their team have passed a significant milestone in pushing New York City to adopt these new laws. “This is how we’ve shown our power as workers,” Ajche says. 

About the Author

Emily Harris

Emily Harris majored in chemistry at Williams College, where she also deepened her interests in neuroscience and psychology. Before SHERP, she worked as a research assistant for a longitudinal study on aging. Emily looks forward to making health and medical information accessible and relevant by combining storytelling with the translation of scientific concepts. Raised in New Hampshire, she enjoys trail running and hiking.

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