MacDougal Street in downtown Manhattan is so dense with fast-casual restaurants that it can feel like a single machine, churning to keep up with the insatiable hunger of NYU students and tourists looking for a meal in between popping into Bob Dylan’s first New York gig venue and being aggressively ushered into one of the many comedy clubs. Yet the street is even busier than it initially appears: the online food delivery industry is worth $8 billion annually, a number expected to triple over the next four years, and New York is one of its largest markets.
You don’t have to wait long outside Mighty Bowl or by CHLOE to see a delivery app courier pull up on a bike, smartphone in hand. Overwhelmingly but not exclusively male, couriers wear everything from sweatpants and Adidas slides to calf-length neon reflective coats, but they are all recognizable by the logo-branded bags they carry: insulated cube-shaped backpacks and totes in shades of GrubHub red, DoorDash orange, UberEats black.
It can be a solitary job: hailing from West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America among other places, couriers are often divided from one another by language. Constantly on the go, they work for different combinations of apps, making each person’s experience slightly different. But there is an informal community maintained in the moments they cross paths outside restaurants, on Reddit and Facebook groups, and at hubs—like MacDougal Street—where they gather on sidewalks and steps while on break, relaxing but also comparing notes. How much did you make this morning? How do you make money in the summer, when orders are slow? Which app offers better tips, Caviar or Postmates?
Food delivery in New York City is nothing new: it’s been possible to have pizza or Chinese takeout brought to your door since the 1950s. Before the rise of online delivery services, the work was performed mostly by Latino and Chinese immigrant men paid in cash, with restaurateurs trusting that their generally undocumented status would prevent them from reporting wage theft and other labor violations. In 2012, the city estimated that there were 50,000 couriers working directly for restaurants rather than for the app-based industry that has expanded rapidly since then.
Researchers like Dr. Do Lee, a CUNY professor who works with the cyclist advocacy group The Biking Public Project, have shed light on the conditions in this notoriously shadowy “traditional” sector of the industry. For his dissertation in 2018 on delivery cyclists, Lee found that Chinese and Latino immigrant workers are regularly compensated with a $20–40 daily base pay regardless of the number of hours they work, which is generally ten to sixteen. Wage theft is common, and not just perpetrated by small businesses. In 2014, a Domino’s Pizza franchisee was forced to pay $1.28 million after sixty-one delivery workers filed a class action lawsuit over minimum wage and overtime violations, among other infractions. Carlos Rodriguez Herrera, one of the first in the suit, described often being unpaid for twenty hours’ worth of work per week.
Despite the expansion of online delivery since then, there are still a high number of delivery people who don’t work for apps, according to Lee. However, some restaurants have fired the delivery workers they employed after using delivery apps increased their takeout volume and the logistics and cost of coordinating delivery became untenable. I spoke to one courier who had been fired by a restaurant in Park Slope only to come back and deliver their food for Relay, a digital logistics company.
Mel Gonzalez, a legal fellow at the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road, pointed out that this can displace undocumented workers, who cannot access the apps because they almost all require that couriers register with a Social Security number, or immigrants with very limited English, because most of the apps require an English test.
Yet for those who can join the online delivery industry, startups, flush with venture capital, have both altered and entrenched this historically exploitative low-wage work. The higher profile and PR consciousness of the new app firms curb some of the job’s worst abuses and offer the potential for better wages, but they also formalize its precariousness: like most gig workers, couriers are classified as independent contractors rather than employees, meaning that the very concept of a labor violation does not apply. Last year, one in five jobs in America was performed by a contract worker, and online delivery work offers a particularly clear example of the contractor model’s pitfalls when it is applied to a physical and hazardous job.
Competition in online food delivery is fierce, and there are four main players in the US after recent mergers: DoorDash/Caviar, which recently claimed the largest market share nationally; GrubHub/Seamless, the oldest and formerly most successful in the field; UberEats, which does high volume business but is notably low in profits; and Postmates, limping along in fourth place, with rumors that it may be sold. In New York City, Relay is also prominent. Much is unclear about this new industry, including the simple question of how many couriers it actually employs. The app companies do not all readily disclose the numbers, and even if they did, many couriers work for multiple apps simultaneously. A working estimate is “tens of thousands,” in New York, and DoorDash alone employs 700,000 cyclists and drivers nationwide, which is more people than currently work in the entire US mining industry.
The big question is whether the job pays fairly. Undoubtedly, there is a certain gold-rush promise: couriers have stories about a friend who made $200 in three hours by using two apps at once, and mention times when the apps are offering bonuses that make a $20-per-hour wage possible. Since earnings are exempt from minimum wage requirements, though, they vary a great deal. Even when the money is good, it rarely comes easy.
“So, you want to know about the life of a courier?” Marc Anthony Jerry, whom I met on MacDougal Street, asked. He’s been working for various apps for three years—a long time in a high-turnover business. “It’s a grind.”
Is it a living, I asked? “You have to organize,” he replied. “It’s a hustle. Back in the day you used to have hard drugs on the street, guys would pick corners—now it’s just that, with apps.”
The main apps all compensate couriers in slightly different ways, but the essentials are the same. Each order gives a small payout based on miles traveled, minutes spent delivering, and sometimes a flat fee per delivery. To give a sense of scale, as of the time of writing, Postmates paid $2.50 for a successful pickup and drop-off, $1.05 per mile, and $0.07 per minute in Manhattan, the most lucrative borough; in the Bronx, the pay per mile is only sixty cents. Couriers make most of their money from tips and bonuses offered by the app as rewards for completing a certain number of deliveries. The level of skill required to make more than sub-minimum wages is demonstrated whenever a newbie tries his or her hand at the job. Andy Newman, working for several delivery apps in reporting for The New York Times, found he was making under $10 per hour.
Despite the seeming transparency of the pay-for-performance reward system, there is much that couriers can’t control. The service that couriers provide is known in the industry as “last-mile delivery,” and as the final step in a complex process, they can be held responsible for mistakes that accumulate farther upstream. The long, uncompensated stretches of time couriers spend waiting at restaurants for orders to be ready can irk hungry customers, affecting tips, and, more importantly, waste time that could be spent doing other deliveries.
Mispackaged orders can also cause problems. Gagandeep Singh, who has been working as a courier for a year for three different apps, told me that dealing with customers angry over missing ketchup packets and other minor infractions is the most difficult part of the job.
Then there are the vagaries of the app. Technical glitches can direct couriers to restaurants where their assigned orders have already been picked up by someone else. Restaurant workers can rate couriers, which sometimes results in their being banned for reasons that are unclear to them or are difficult to resolve if they have limited English. Order volume can also vary widely based on the time of day, the season, the weather, and the number of other couriers in the area, sometimes making for long dry spells.
Couriers can assert some control by deciding which orders to accept and reject, where to work, when to work, and which apps to work for in order to realize some measure of the independence this type of gig work is supposed to offer. Yet delivery companies must be able to marshal their fleet of riders so that all orders will be delivered, even ones that most riders would decline, suspecting they will not pay well (like very small orders from far away).
To resolve this problem, employers toe a delicate line between incentivizing and demanding. For example, GrubHub couriers have to maintain a high rate of accepting orders to be able to schedule themselves for blocks of time in which the app offers guaranteed hourly wages (around $11). The apps also resort to outright obfuscation to prevent their workers from preferentially accepting certain orders: UberEats, for example, won’t show couriers how far away a delivery is before they agree to take it.
Bonuses encourage riders to work at certain times, in certain areas, and to accept orders that they generally wouldn’t in order to hit targets with such motivational names as “Quest” or “Lunch Hustler” or “Weekend Crusher.” Couriers value these bonuses, without which the job would often be barely worth their while, and there is a certain win-win logic to giving riders financial incentives to meet the algorithmically determined needs of the app. But the bonuses also reveal that the much-touted flexibility of the job is disingenuous, as the aggregate result is that couriers deliver more orders that individually pay less.
“It’s physical work,” said Nazmus Saquib, who has worked as a courier for two years. “Eight-hour work schedules should not be dependent on working more to be paid more. You should be able to make a living without wearing yourself out.” Niels van Doorn refers to this intricate system of bonuses as “gamification.” An assistant professor in the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam, he interviewed dozens of couriers in New York last year as part of his Platform Labor Project to study how digital platforms are changing low-wage work. “Instead of thinking of themselves as working for companies, workers are treating the apps like slot machines,” he said. “Which one is working for me today? Which one is hot?”
When hourly wages are variable and workers feel responsible for their earnings, it can be difficult to determine whether they’re being paid a fair wage, or if wages are declining over time. Van Doorn and several other experts I spoke to believe they are, as maturing companies launched on venture capital try to cut labor costs. “If they would pay per hour, or a set price per order, you could see very clearly when they start lowering your wage,” said van Doorn. “When every order is dynamically priced, it gets so much harder to see if you’re making less money. Drivers wonder, did I reject too much? Did I work a little less? Might it be an incidental thing?”
An obvious way to make payment more consistent and reduce the stress on couriers would be to reclassify them as employees, which, in addition to guaranteeing minimum wage, would grant them basic labor rights. That would make them eligible for overtime, collective bargaining, sick days, worker’s comp, and unemployment insurance.
Such benefits are crucial in the delivery industry because the work is dangerous. In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared it “an emergency” when the nineteenth cyclist was killed in the city this year—of which at least five were delivery workers or bike messengers. A month earlier, twenty-nine-year-old Mohammed Abdullah, who was granted asylum in the US two years ago after facing political persecution in Bangladesh, was killed by an out-of-control car in Canarsie just after completing his final order of the night for Uber Eats. One of his friends told the Daily News, “This job, he didn’t like it but had to do [it].”
Delivery workers are particularly vulnerable because of their high mileage and the time pressures they face, which encourage them to ride with less caution than they might otherwise. “Sometimes it’s our fault,” said Jerry, who says he has been in “a lot” of accidents in his three years working. “The majority of the time it’s the car’s fault.” A survey by the Biking Public Project found that 62 percent of working cyclists in New York City had experienced a crash with a motor vehicle at some point, and nearly a third had missed work due to work-related injuries in 2017.
After an accident, not only is there generally no compensation, but cyclists are sometimes kicked off their apps if an incident involving an injury interferes with the delivery of an order. There is usually a way to appeal such a decision, but doing so can be a frustrating process. This was the experience of Walid Benayoun, who was “deactivated” by UberEats after a crash. Showing me a stiff, red finger, still unhealed, he said he was angry that when he met with an UberEats representative to try to get reactivated, the executive seemed more concerned about whether or not he had spilled blood on the order than about his well-being. “They only asked about the customer,” he said. Although he did get reactivated, he has refused to work for UberEats since. When asked what the most difficult part of the job was, he gestured to the street as if it was obvious and said, “The risk on the road.”
Couriers are also incentivized to work in bad weather, when orders spike, which apps explicitly encourage. GrubHub has been known to urge riders to take advantage of the high order volume that comes from “extreme weather” like blizzards, and, in one notification shared to Reddit, Caviar cheerfully points out that “when it rains, orders pour!”
Caviar, which markets itself as delivering higher end food, began offering occupation accident insurance in 2018 after the well-publicized death of thirty-four-year-old Pablo Avendano, who was killed by an SUV in Philadelphia while delivering food in a downpour. This past June, several months before purchasing Caviar, DoorDash began offering a similar policy. Though he welcomes it as a necessary first step, van Doorn has found that, in the absence of oversight, the policy is not implemented comprehensively. Claims are often denied—he spoke to one rider who broke his femur while delivering a Caviar order and was not covered. It’s also worth noting that Jerry was not aware of any benefits despite working for Caviar, which suggests that coverage is not well-advertised to riders.
Unemployment insurance would be another valuable benefit, because workers are routinely fired with little explanation via email. A number of couriers have also lost their livelihoods as a result of Mayor De Blasio’s ramped up enforcement against e-bikes in 2017, citing vague and unsupported safety concerns. Since then, police have confiscated more than 2,000 e-bikes, in addition to slapping delivery workers with $500 fines. De Blasio claimed that his intention was to ticket businesses rather than riders, and while that did not often happen, couriers were occasionally able to get their tickets dismissed on the grounds that their employers were the ones responsible. However, contractors for delivery apps have no such recourse. Make the Road’s organizer Mel Gonzalez found it difficult to understand why online delivery companies have remained silent on the issue of e-bike legalization, despite having ample lobbying power, and ultimately concluded that they hadn’t wanted to draw attention to the fact that they had been long relying on couriers to break the law in the normal course of their work. Perhaps, even more simply, they had no need to get involved given that their couriers would be the ones footing the bill.
Another, less dramatic benefit to gaining employee status would be the ability to participate in payroll taxation. Saquib said that determining taxes for couriers working for many different employers is difficult, and it is financially onerous to have all of your income taxed at once, rather than gradually.
It is important to note that some workers like their independent contractor status. Most of the couriers I spoke to mentioned valuing their flexible hours, or enjoying not having to work directly for a boss. But there’s no reason that employers couldn’t continue to offer flexible scheduling even if workers were reclassified, and regardless, flexibility can lose its meaning when it’s necessary to work constantly to make ends meet. Gagandeep Singh, for example, said that the job could be positive for people in school wanting to work part time, but he himself regularly works eleven to thirteen hour days.
California, not New York, has become ground-zero in the struggle for independent contractors like Uber and Lyft drivers and delivery workers to win rights as regular employees. In 2015, Raef Lawson, who worked as a driver for GrubHub for four months in the Los Angeles area, filed a lawsuit alleging that he should have been classified as an employee. The suit set precedent in GrubHub’s favor in 2018 on the grounds that Lawson enjoyed relative independence, but the judge did find that his delivery work was “a regular part of [GrubHub’s] business.”
GrubHub has argued in the past that it is simply “a marketplace connecting diners with restaurants” rather than a delivery company. This seems to have the backing of the Trump administration’s US Department of Labor, which recently published an opinion that workers in “virtual marketplace companies,” including delivery workers, are correctly classified as independent contractors. But that ruling has now been challenged by lawmakers in California.
Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), which promises to grant employee status to hundreds of thousands of former contractors, was signed into the legislature on Wednesday by Governor Gavin Newsom. AB5 would institute a rigorous, three-pronged “ABC” test for classifying workers as contractors, whereby employers would have to prove that contractors are a) free from the employer’s control, b) perform work that differs from the company’s core business, and c) have an independent trade or business that is related to the work they perform for the company.
Under AB5, with the same judge’s ruling, Raef Lawson would have won his case against GrubHub on the strength of his violation of the “B” clause, which is the one that will be the most troublesome for companies seeking to maintain their contractors. However, they have already tried to evade it—Uber’s chief legal counsel told the press that Uber is merely “a technology platform for several different types of digital marketplaces,” and driving is outside their usual course of business. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have jointly pledged $90 million to support a ballot measure that would allow their workers to be exempt from full employee status.
With this well-funded opposition, the dust is far from settled on independent contractors in California. In New York, there is currently less momentum to reclassify workers, though a coalition of labor activist groups—including Make the Road—is in the early stages of advocating for a similar bill to AB5. Cuomo has expressed support in general terms, saying, “I don’t want to lag California in anything.” In the meantime, the easiest immediate win, according to Gonzalez, might be to fight for an earnings floor, like the $17 per hour minimum pay rate that went into effect for Uber and Lyft drivers at the beginning of 2019 after a two-year fight. Organizing efforts could also go into ensuring that independent contractors can access benefits.
Even moderate activism can expect stiff resistance from the business owners—not least because many, perhaps most, of the players have yet to prove their economic model even works. DoorDash, the largest and fastest-growing delivery service in the country, does not make a profit, and UberEats is regarded by Uber, its parent company, as a “loss leader,” whose function is to publicize the Uber brand, an impressive designation given that Uber itself has lost $5.2 billion dollars in the past three months. Yet, as long as these companies are able to capture market share, they are rewarded with venture capital from investors like SoftBank, a Japanese company whose $100 billion Vision Fund can sustain unprofitable startups nearly indefinitely in the name of growth. SoftBank, which receives 45 percent of its financing from the Saudi Arabian government and whose CEO is heavily invested in developing AI, is even content to bet on different horses: it funds both UberEats and DoorDash.
Van Doorn suggested that the true value investors see in these companies might be in the data they are amassing. “Gig work is data work,” he said. “They generate so much data about customer habits, but also urban logistics: routes, times for transport. This data can be used in all kinds of ways, in ways that the companies don’t even [yet] know.”
Throughout it all, this high-tech speculation is powered by low-tech, physical labor. The digital-age customer interface may have changed, but the nature of the job remains what it has always been: ferrying food through hazardous roads from point A to point B. And that relies on the same inequities that have always enabled dangerous, low-wage work, both locally and globally: in the particularly clear example of Colombia, delivery apps are flourishing as Venezuelans fleeing hunger across the border provide a workforce reliably willing to work for less.
“Platform labor is migrant labor, everywhere,” said van Doorn. “Of course, there’s novelty in there, but what I’m ultimately interested in is how these platforms amplify existing racial, gendered, and class inequalities.”
In a candid blog post from 2015, Alex Blum, the founder of Relay, described carrying out deliveries himself in the company’s early, short-staffed days, and being surprised by the disrespect he faced. “I found that doormen treat delivery guys with immense disdain,” he wrote. “Customers don’t answer their doors or phones, or tip $0.75 for a 1 mile trip in -12 F… I remember riding around through the snow at 10:30PM on a Sunday in mid December thinking ‘If I’m still doing this next month, I’m out.’”
Blum soon shifted his attention from delivering orders to the business of being a CEO. Yet the snow and disdain persist for his employees, and tens of thousands of others, without the guarantee of a living wage. When I asked Saquib if it’s possible to make a sustainable living with delivery work, he said: “If you want to kill yourself working, then yes.”
An earlier version of this essay misidentified Mel Gonzalez’s position at Make the Road; he is a legal fellow, not an organizer. The article has been updated.