What it's like for couriers who keep delivering so you can stay home

Most customers don't want to see Bob Rodkin anymore.

Instead of dropping off food for Uber Eats in person, he's been told to put it on front porches, at doors or in building lobbies. Every so often, he'll get a wave through the window.

"You deliver a pizza to somebody and they say just leave it on the front step ... it's just a cement step that's covered in dirt," he said. "And you want me to leave your food on there? And that's better than me handing it to you?"

It's become standard delivery practice as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies. Couriers like Rodkin, 59, have taken on new level of responsibility, continuing to go out and deliver so people can stay at home.

Submitted by Bob Rodkin

It's different while picking up too.

Restaurants are making couriers grab their deliveries at drive-thrus, front windows or wait for it to be brought outside when it's ready. Others only allow a few people inside for pick-up, with barriers in place and employees practising physical distancing.

That's made it hard for Rodkin, a grandfather who also just started working an Ajax grocery store, to find places to go to the bathroom and wash his hands while picking up food.

"I don't order delivery food ... I'm not sure that I'd be comfortable," said Rodkin, who delivers around Oshawa and Whitby, east of Toronto. "If you can order groceries and get the groceries and make it yourself, you're better off ... there's just fewer hands touching everything."

Some sick pay promised but no sanitizer

Couriers are in a unique position to catch the virus and infect others while moving packages between many different places and people.

Brice Sopher worries about getting sick but said he needs to keep delivering so he can pay rent.

"It's very hard to do when one really hasn't gotten a lot of support from the companies that they work for," said Sopher, who bikes for Uber Eats and Foodora in Toronto. "Both [companies] continue to insist that business goes on."

Submitted by Brice Sopher

Uber Eats and Foodora have promised couriers some sick pay for up to two weeks if they get COVID-19 or are forced into self-isolation. Another food delivery company, Skip the Dishes, has stopped allowing cash. All three apps are allowing "contactless" delivery.

But Sopher said he hasn't gotten any hand sanitizer, disinfectant or gloves, something he wants the companies to provide. He's been bringing his own and sanitizing his gloves every 15 minutes or so.

Sopher also wants couriers to have the option to self-isolate voluntarily, while still getting pay.

Evan Mitsui/CBC

He was involved in the push to allow Foodora couriers to unionize. Ontario's labour relations board ruled in February they were eligible to join a union, the first app-based workers to win that right in Canada.

Currently, he's trying to figure out a way to get money to colleagues who can't work and food to couriers who might not be able to afford it. He also wants the province to reconsider couriers' designation as essential.

"Delivering sushi to someone in a condo isn't an essential service," he said.

"If we were delivering food to people that had mobility issues or ... equipment to frontline health workers, that would make us an essential service."

Submitted by Brice Sopher

'Terrifying ... but it's exciting'

Others have already pivoted.

Cathy Conroy runs On the Road delivery service in Walkerton, Ont., usually driving long distances for companies. But office closures have meant she's now mostly doing local food deliveries for people who are scared to go out.

She's offered to pick up food, do grocery runs or even get the mail for people.

How safe it is to eat delivery?

Experts say the risk of getting COVID-19 from delivery and takeout is low but have advice:

  • Get couriers to leave food at the door.
  • You can reheat the food.
  • Wash your hands before and after you eat.

"It is kind of terrifying ... but it's exciting to help people, to feel like you're really making a difference," she said. 

Conroy's being careful; her family has a history of health problems like heart and lung issues, which makes them more vulnerable. She's decided to start wearing masks and has been sanitizing constantly.

When she drops off a delivery at a house, she'll leave it at the door step and wait in her van to make sure it doesn't get stolen.

Submitted by Cathy Conroy

That's kept her busy, but it's also helped her keep stress down and focus on something other than the pandemic.

"If I'm sitting around more thinking about it, than I'm more stressed. That's just the way I am."

This is part of a series looking into the unexpected front-line workers of this pandemic, the people in every day, low wage jobs (like grocery store workers) who are keeping things running while many stay home. If you have a job or a person you think should be profiled, get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.