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Time to Deliver Justice to Delivery Workers

Phil Penman
A man reading the paper outside a deli on Tenth Avenue, Hells Kitchen, New York City, March 24, 2020

When the buzzy, Michelin-starred Greenwich Village restaurant Carbone began offering takeout and delivery last week, so many New Yorkers placed orders that the police had to arrive on two separate nights to manage the crowd gathered outside the restaurant. Images of delivery workers forced to stand well closer than six feet to one another to hear their orders being called attracted a flurry of media attention; several commentators, including the New York Times’s Frank Bruni, noted that a popular item for delivery was a $70 veal parm.

Vulnerable to accidents on the job, delivery workers have always risked life and limb for low pay and with no protection from their employers; sometimes, this is in the course of doing the important work of delivering food to those with limited mobility; sometimes, as in the case of the upscale parm, it is simply for the convenience of the privileged. Covid-19 has heightened the inequities of delivery work by adding new dangers, in the same way that it has made more visible the dangers of being homeless, in prison, or living paycheck-to-paycheck during a crisis in a society with no functioning safety net.

“Workers are deeply, deeply scared right now,” said Do Lee, a CUNY professor who works with the Biking Public Project, an advocacy group for working cyclists. Most employers, from restaurants to large companies like GrubHub, are providing little to no personal protective equipment (PPE), and the most generous benefits on offer so far, from DoorDash and UberEats only, have been fourteen days of paid sick leave if couriers are placed under mandatory self-quarantine or are sickened by Covid-19—but only if they can prove it.. Lee says that the situation for delivery workers is symptomatic of a sector “that was already exploited,” and, he goes on, “a pandemic is bringing into sharper relief the ways that employers shift risks onto workers.”

Nazmus Saquib, who has worked as a courier for two years, wrote me over text message that he worked one day since restaurants in the city were ordered to end their dine-in service on March 17, but likely won’t continue, even if it means he can’t make rent. He found that despite the virus, “nothing changed in terms of how couriers are treated”—the apps he was using weren’t offering any special bonuses or hazard pay. He had read concerns in a Bengali-language newspaper that coronavirus might be spreading in the Bangladeshi community in New York through its members who work in the delivery or the taxi industries.

The crisis is so new that there has been no opportunity yet to do any thorough investigation of couriers’ experiences of delivering through a pandemic, but Mel Gonzalez, who works with the Deliver Justice Coalition, which includes the Biking Public Project and several other worker and immigrant advocacy groups, says that he has heard “some crazy stuff” coming from preliminary interviews with delivery workers.

For example, couriers have described not being allowed to enter restaurants to wash their hands, much less being provided with masks or hand-sanitizer. For those working for delivery apps, several companies have introduced a “no-contact” option, according to which couriers are required to leave food in a foyer or outside a door—but this can be initiated by the customer only. Lee mentioned that it is difficult for workers to safely collect tips, which usually come in cash, especially for those working directly for restaurants. Couriers employed by restaurants also tend to be older, sometimes in their sixties, and thus at greater risk if they contract the virus. That’s if they still have a job—Asian delivery workers have experienced particularly severe job losses, as many Chinese restaurants have had to close or let workers go after losing business for weeks thanks to xenophobic paranoia.

This is, of course, all taking place at a time when delivery services are more crucial than ever. Among the many new phrases that have suddenly become common currency—“six feet,” “social distancing,” “flatten the curve”—“essential worker” is perhaps the most significant. The term acknowledges the fact that labor that might previously have been dismissed as low-skill is, in fact, crucial to society’s functioning, arguably far more so than that of many white-collar workers now “wfh.” New York City is fueled by grocery store clerks and the families who run bodegas, by farmworkers and truck drivers and couriers. This has always been true, but it is particularly evident now.

Several mutual aid groups have sprung up to provide free delivery services to fellow New Yorkers. The Corona Couriers, a group of volunteer cyclists, was founded at the beginning of the lockdown in New York by a recently laid-off NYPL librarian who was inspired by the couriers of Wuhan working in that city’s large e-commerce industry, who spent up to twelve hours per day delivering groceries and medical supplies. Morgan Sykes, the unofficial spokesperson of the Corona Couriers and a former bike messenger herself, said that the most common items the group has been delivering are groceries—including important rehydrating fluids like Pedialyte and Gatorade—and prescriptions, especially to those who are sick and who’ve been advised not to leave the home for the sake of public health.

However, essential work has not been supported by essential supplies. While medical professionals on the front lines struggle with resources, groups like the Deliver Justice Coalition have been working to provide masks and other sanitary equipment to delivery workers, but it’s a drop in the bucket.

“The sheer scale of this is beyond the scope of a community-based organization,” said Lee, of the Biking Public Project. “When you talk about tens of thousands of delivery workers, providing the necessary sanitary supplies is beyond what we can manage. We aren’t logistics experts; it should be employers doing it, it should be government stepping in and filling the gaps. But the government itself is desperate for PPE.”

Given the shortages, Lee argues that the most ethical way forward is for customers to order only essential items for delivery—no Carbone hors d’oeuvres—allowing workers to carry out fewer trips and, instead, putting more onus on the government to compensate them for their lost wages. The recent stimulus bill passed by the US Congress will bring temporary relief to some: for the first time, gig workers will be eligible for unemployment insurance.

The law will do nothing, though, for the undocumented immigrants who make up a significant proportion of the delivery workforce in the city. This is a grave and dangerous injustice given that their off-the-books status makes them ineligible for food stamps or other social services that could soften the effects of losing a job. For those tens of thousands of couriers in New York who will qualify for the expanded unemployment benefits, it remains to be seen whether the money will come quickly enough to prevent a serious gap in income. The widespread reports of crashing government websites and jammed phone lines are not promising. Nonetheless, the new law is a historic expansion of gig workers’ rights, and may be a step toward full employment status for the millions of people across the country who are currently considered independent contractors.

When I asked Lee if he thought that this crisis might lead to the end of gig work by revealing the fragility of a system that leaves workers unprotected in the event of any job disruption, he noted that Instacart was hiring rapidly to meet a surge in demand. The company currently has around 200,000 contractors who deliver groceries and household goods, but is planning to add 300,000 more over the next three months, more than doubling its workforce in size. (On March 30, Instacart workers walked off the job nationwide demanding hazard pay, more paid sick time, and access to disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. Amazon workers in a Staten Island warehouse where multiple people had been diagnosed with Covid-19 walked out on the same day with similar demands; the worker who organized the strike was fired.) In a possible future in which there is high unemployment and widespread desperation for work, there could be more gig workers than ever—assuming business is still booming for companies like Instacart, Amazon, and GrubHub.

“We might all be working for the gig economy at the end of this,” Lee said. Now that no employment feels secure, and with the inherent precariousness of benefits-less low-wage jobs laid bare, the case for reform of the rights of contractors and other unprotected workers has acquired a new urgency. “We are only as safe as the least protected worker among us,” said Lee, citing an old principle of the labor movement. It is both a call to arms and a warning.

One hopeful measure has been a temporary stay on electric-bicycle ticketing. The NYPD has been confiscating the e-bikes that are used ubiquitously by delivery workers, issuing the riders with stiff fines, on the evidence-less grounds that the bikes are a threat to pedestrian safety. In spite of considerable agitation from activist groups like the Biking Public Project, in December Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have legalized e-bikes. But after restaurants were ordered to switch to delivery and takeout only, the mayor’s office announced a temporary suspension of enforcement.

Gonzalez, of the Deliver Justice Coalition, says that the ease with which ticketing was revoked shows “that the law didn’t make any sense before,” and hopes the suspension will lead to full legalization.

The maxim of former mayor of Chicago and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that “you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste” can sound cynical, but a shock to the system has the unique potential to create change. The pandemic is disrupting old established modes of business and exposing frailties in our political and economic order that suddenly look untenable.

Maybe now, said Gonzalez, “We can do things that seemed impossible before.”