Just before Christmas last year, Willy Solis, a 42-year-old residential construction worker-turned-delivery driver, was hired to take a late-night $100 bottle of cognac to an apartment complex in Denton, Texas. Once Solis found the apartment, he met a stocky man who gave a name that not only didn't match the ID he showed, but it also wasn't the name of the person who placed the order. Confused, Solis called Instacart's phone support line.
Solis said that that angered the customer and his three male friends and that they ordered him to hand over the cognac. Even though he had qualms about it, Solis, under the direction of the Instacart supervisor who was still on the phone, gave them the bottle.
Solis sped off in his 2018 Nissan Sentra before the situation escalated. It wasn't the only recent time he had felt unsafe. Solis, who has worked for DoorDash, Shipt, Grubhub and other gig economy companies, said he also delivered to an apartment in Haltom City, outside Fort Worth, where a female Uber Eats driver was murdered in January.
Solis said that since then, he has stopped working after 9 p.m. and has considered carrying a gun. But he fears that if he violates gig companies' rules not to carry firearms, he could risk losing his job.
"I'm very fearful every time I go out," said Solis, who makes $800 to $1,000 a week before expenses and taxes. "I don't want to lose my life over a $100 bottle of cognac or a fast food order."
Solis is one of 15 gig economy workers who spoke with NBC News and said they feared for their safety as violence against the industry has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. Police in several major cities, including Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., say carjackings and car thefts, particularly against gig economy drivers, rose during the pandemic.
Some drivers say that despite the companies' best efforts, they are changing their hours, avoiding certain areas and even carrying weapons, like wasp spray, Mace, Tasers and firearms, to protect themselves.
"As the danger grows more and more, that's what's pushing me more towards the possibility of doing it," Solis said about carrying a gun.
It's a pattern that especially affects minorities working in the lower-paying jobs, said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who has extensively researched the taxi industry and the gig economy.
"A lot of these workers are subordinated racial minorities, and they are likely to bear the brunt of physical violence, because they are in public doing this kind of work," she said.
The problems have become widespread enough that the major tech companies have been stepping up to address them. Uber recently instituted safety measures to protect drivers, including more verification requirements for people who set up accounts with gift cards or other anonymous payment systems.
DoorDash spokesperson Campbell Matthews said in an email that the company is "deeply troubled by reports of increased crime" and that it intends to add an "emergency assistance button into the Dasher app to help connect Dashers to emergency services."
In a statement, Grubhub spokesperson Grant Klinzman echoed Matthews' remarks, saying the safety of the company's drivers "is our top priority" and that the company was "ready to support law enforcement investigations ... as they take steps to address the unacceptable spike in vehicle thefts."
Lyft spokesperson Ashley Adams said that the company considers safety to be "fundamental" and that "we are working closely with law enforcement to help keep drivers safe."
Instacart expressed similar concerns but said it hadn't "seen an increase in carjackings or assault towards shoppers."
"We take the safety and security of the entire Instacart community very seriously," Natalia Montalvo, a company spokesperson, said by email. "Shoppers have many resources available to them to ensure their safety and protection while shopping and delivering on the Instacart platform."
The attacks on drivers, which appear to have started last year, may be part of a larger trend of a rise in violent crime in major cities, according to research in November by the Police Executive Research Forum.
Chicago police found that there were 424 carjackings from January through March, more than double the 198 carjackings the same time last year. In San Diego, carjackings more than doubled last year, to 97, from 44 in 2019. In Minneapolis, carjackings also more than doubled, to 97, in the first three months of the year, compared to 39 in the first three months of last year. In Washington, carjackings more than quadrupled in the first quarter of this year from the first quarter of last year, to 102.
Such growth has happened elsewhere, too. In Cincinnati, 38 vehicles were stolen from Jan. 1 through March 20 in the "CUF" neighborhood near the University of Cincinnati. Emily Szink, a police spokesperson, said "many of those cars were left running and were delivery drivers," estimating them to be two-thirds of the 38 reports, or about 26.
But the spikes aren't universal: Police in Sacramento, California; Phoenix; Lansing, Michigan; and Dallas say they haven't seen such rises. It isn't clear why some cities are experiencing more of this type of crime than others.
Even before the rise in violent crime against gig workers, being a delivery driver was identified as one of the most dangerous jobs in America — typically as a result of traffic accidents — according to an analysis last year of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.
Last month alone, several high-profile events shook the gig worker community. In New York City, Francisco Villalva Vitinio, a DoorDash delivery worker, was killed after he refused to give up his e-bike, which he needed for work, to would-be robbers. Authorities said Mohammad Anwar, 66, an Uber Eats driver, died at the hands of two teenage girls who investigators said used a stun gun on him in Washington. Days earlier, in Chicago, Javier Ramos, an Uber driver, was shot in the head and killed; police said his killer was a passenger he had picked up after 3 a.m.
On Feb. 6, Jeffrey Fang, 39, a DoorDash driver in San Francisco, left his silver Honda Odyssey minivan running while he made a delivery — leaving inside his 4-year-old daughter and his 2-year-old son, who speak only Mandarin. When he returned, he found a strange man sitting in the driver's seat.
Fang said he dragged the man, who he said snatched his cellphone, out of the car and chased him on foot to get his phone back. Fang lost the man, ending up a short distance away. When he returned, he discovered that his minivan had been stolen with his children inside. (The children and the car were recovered hours later, unharmed.)
"There are a lot of things that people need to know," Fang said, speaking of gig work in general. "It's not simple, and it's at times dangerous."
Small-town America isn't immune. In Rapid City, South Dakota, a 20-year-old DoorDash driver named Danielle — whose last name is being withheld as she fears reprisal from the company — said she has felt unsafe.
She said that last month, when she was making a delivery with her 2-year-old son in the back, five men surrounded her car. As she sped away with her son in the back, "they tried opening my car doors and banging on my windows." The incident left her shaken, and she said she is thinking about buying a handgun, which she isn't legally allowed to do until her next birthday.
"I would feel a lot safer taking my son with me if I were carrying," she said. "In a time of need, I will be able to use it and defend myself and my son."
Early on the morning of March 23, Javier Ramos, 46, an Uber driver, was found shot in the head in Chicago's Lawndale section, less than 8 miles north of Midway Airport. Police rushed him to a hospital; he was pronounced dead just over four hours later.
Lenny Sanchez, a longtime ride-share driver and labor organizer based in Chicago, tweeted the next day that Ramos had "tried to fight off his attackers." Ramos appeared to have been left for dead, having been run over by his own car, seemingly after a struggle.
Since the beginning of the year, Sanchez and the Independent Drivers Guild, a union, have been sounding the alarm online and at in-person rallies about carjackings of gig drivers in Chicago. He said many drivers he has talked to are scared and have changed how, where and when they work. Some gig workers are considering taking stronger measures.
"Drivers are brandishing their weapons to us. A lot of them are arming themselves," Sanchez said.
While Sanchez applauded Uber's new efforts this year to keep drivers safer and said his group is seeking additional safety measures, he worried that Lyft drivers in Chicago and elsewhere face renewed threats, pointing to the recent killing of a Lyft driver in St. Louis.
He said he thinks Uber's changes have had an effect. "We know it won't be perfect, but we would like to see more, and we would like to see Lyft do more," he said. "We are seeing the criminals switch over to Lyft."
Lyft didn't respond directly to Sanchez's claim. Adams, the company spokesperson, said by email that it was "working to proactively identify" accounts that "we determine to be high-risk."
"In doing so, we look at a variety of account attributes, including the use of anonymous payment methods, which are more frequently linked to fraudulent accounts," she wrote. "Actions we take include temporarily and permanently deactivating accounts, as well as requiring additional validation before being able to order a ride."
Hortencia Ramos, Ramos' cousin, said her family has been devastated by his death, particularly his 9-year-old daughter. She described Ramos as an "entrepreneur always looking to set an example for his daughter," an observant Christian and someone who had a daily fitness and workout routine.
She said her family has been very disappointed with how Uber has handled her cousin's death; she said no one from the company had reached out to even offer sympathy, much less anything more substantive.
Jodi Kawada Page, an Uber spokesperson, said in a statement: "We are deeply saddened by this news. Our thoughts are with Javier's loved ones and we've reached out to the family to offer our support."
Law enforcement efforts
Law enforcement agencies have been stepping up. Chicago police have expanded a "vehicular hijacking task force" with state and federal agencies. Since the beginning of the year, Chicago police have published 30 news releases describing indictments of carjacking suspects, including those alleged to have targeted gig workers. The police department has even published two-page flyers in four languages — English, Spanish, Polish and Chinese — explaining how victims should respond to minimize harm.
Similarly, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington reported a steady increase in carjackings, as well. In 2019, there were 142; last year they jumped to 345. There were 47 carjacking-related arrests in the first three months of this year, compared to just two during the first quarter of last year.
Police have put out flyers alerting people to the dangers of leaving their vehicles running while making deliveries.
"Over the last few months, we have worked to partner with delivery companies to get the word out to their drivers," Kristen Metzger, a police spokesperson, said by email.
The early efforts by police departments seem to be resulting in change. Last month, Cincinnati police even put up electronic signs to remind drivers to "Lock Car & Take Key," among other safety messages.
"Thefts of delivery driver vehicles left running have started to trend downwards, which means our messaging is working," Szink, the police spokesperson, said by email.
But gig workers who have been victims may need more time before they feel safe again. Back in San Francisco, Fang has been taking a break from gig work. After the harrowing kidnapping of his children, supporters raised over $100,000 through GoFundMe, and DoorDash donated several thousand dollars to his family directly.
Still, Fang remains fearful of going back to work. During his time as an Uber driver, he said, guns were pointed at him multiple times. Nowadays, he carries a Taser in his car.
"Prior to the Taser, I had a knife in the car, but that was stolen," he said. "Especially after the February 6 incident and the spate of anti-Asian violence, I'm looking into getting a firearm."
When the pandemic hit and passenger rides largely dried up, he switched to food delivery, because he thought he would make more money and it would be safer.
"I felt it was OK to take the kids, even though I knew it was a risk, but I had no child care, and I felt the risk was minimized," he said, adding that he tried to stick to wealthy neighborhoods. His car and his children were taken in Pacific Heights, one of San Francisco's richest areas.
Fang said he would like DoorDash's and other companies' leaders to consider the needs of working parents, particularly those who feel the need to drive at peak evening dinner hours.
"If they're getting paid six figures with ergonomic furniture and break rooms and all that — if you ask me, how about setting up child care service for dinner hours, like 4 to 10 p.m.?" he said. "So the driver can drop them off? For a billion-dollar company, that shouldn't be too costly."