In New York City, delivery workers won the battle for a higher wage, but advocates say it comes at a cost.
Even for longtime New Yorkers, it may be hard to hearken back to a time before delivery apps. It's always been a city that runs on the promise of being able to get a piping hot pizza, dan dan noodles, or platter of lox to your doorstep with relatively little fuss, but the advent of DoorDash, Uber Eats, and GrubHub have made the process practically seamless. A couple of clicks, and that dosa that was on your screen is suddenly on your doorstep in a way that feels almost like magic. But there's no actual sorcery behind it; that delivery was fueled by human labor and recent actions taken by some of these companies may seem like they're trying to trick consumers out of noticing that part by making tipping options disappear from the checkout screen.
On July 12, 2023, New York City enacted laws ensuring that its approximately 65,000 app-based delivery workers — the majority of whom are immigrants — would earn $.50 a minute while on trips via what's being called the "alternative method," or the "standard method" of $17.96 an hour (about $.30 a minute) while active on apps, not including tips. (A brief explanation of the Uber Eats policy via the Workers Justice Project says that "trip time" starts the moment that a worker accepts an offer or receives an assignment from an app to make a pickup or dropoff in NYC, and ends when they've canceled or completed the trip. "On-call" time is when a worker is connected to an app's system in a status when they're able to accept these offers. They also note that on-call time does not include trip time.)
By 2025, that minimum will increase to $19.96 and adjust annually for inflation. In the summer of 2023 Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Relay (a service that some restaurants and platforms use to manage deliveries) unsuccessfully tried to block this legislation, arguing that drivers could be active on multiple apps while turning down orders, putting the burden of their compensation on the companies, which would in turn have to raise their customer fees.
Advocates for delivery workers, such as Los Deliveristas Unidos and the Workers Justice Project, argue that making compensation less reliant on tips ensures that the independent contractors doing this often dangerous and grueling work — without benefits such as healthcare and paid time off — will be able to do so in a safer manner, driving more carefully and slowly rather than putting themselves and other people at risk so they can get more deliveries out faster. It will also allow the workers to, for the first time, have the reassurance of a guaranteed base pay. As New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection Commissioner Vilda Vera Mayuga said in a November 30 statement after the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, First Judicial Department ruled in favor of the city, “The minimum pay rate of at least $17.96 per hour will help lift thousands of New Yorkers and their families out of poverty, while still allowing flexibility for both apps and workers."
Still, in a city like New York where the cost of living is extraordinarily high, even that guaranteed minimum isn't enough to cover basic living expenses — meaning that even if workers are making more than they were previously, they are still dependent on tips to make ends meet. This is where advocates say that they believe apps are penalizing workers. The specifics of each app varies, but as the companies have increased their fees in order to meet the minimum hourly wages, both DoorDash and Uber Eats have taken measures such as removing the option to tip at the time of checkout, and allowing customers to add a tip only after the trip is complete, or offering significantly lower default tips — thus not encountering what may seem like an inordinately high bill that might cause them to reconsider their order altogether. The onus is then put on customers to manually enter a higher tip, or remember to go back into the app and add a tip once the option becomes available.
According to a statement made by Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Workers Justice Project, within the first month of the new minimum pay standard, "The apps are penalizing delivery workers for going slower and obeying traffic laws since there is no longer a financial incentive for speeding dangerously. Some workers have even been deactivated without reason and had their ability to receive tips purposely diminished." A resource page for the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which enforces the laws concerning food workers, outlines these rights and explains how to report violations against them by companies.
In response to the rulings, Uber spokesperson Josh Gold released a statement saying, "The city continues to lie to workers and the public. This law will put thousands of New Yorkers out of work and force the remaining couriers to compete against each other to deliver orders faster."
DoorDash spokesperson Javier Lacayo echoed the sentiment in a statement saying, “The City’s insistence on forging ahead with such an extreme pay rate will reduce opportunity and increase costs for all New Yorkers,” and noted that the company would "continue evaluating our legal options moving forward.”
While the debate continues, New Yorkers, now deeply accustomed to the convenience of being a click or two away from eating pad Thai in their PJs, are in the position of keeping an eye on each app to keep track of how workers are compensated. Yes, as Guallpa explains in a recent Eater story, food couriers who were previously making $700 to $800 a week may now be making $1200 to $1500, tips are still an essential part of worker pay in a city where even this new minimum won't cover an average rent, where the basic costs of e-bike rentals or maintenance run into the thousands, and thefts and accidents remain a constant threat.
The consensus from most advocates: If you're in the position to do so, tip in cash so that the entirety goes to the worker, not the app. This might seem like an egregious expense atop the mounting cost of food coupled with the fees imposed by delivery apps, but there's time, labor, and danger involved in getting your fries to you while they're still hot from the fryer. The seams are just starting to show.
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