Delivery workers have suddenly been thrust to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Take New York City: With the five boroughs' 8 million people being urged to stay home and its restaurants ordered closed, save for takeout and delivery, the city’s delivery workers — like me — are essentially being asked to become a kind of first responder, filling a vital gap in the city’s infrastructure as all else grinds to a halt.
The city’s delivery workers — like me — are essentially being asked to become a kind of first responder.
This is a dangerous undertaking. According to government data, as reported by The New York Times, couriers risk on-the-work exposure to disease at almost the same rate as nurses, social workers and paramedics. In the course of a full work day, we might do as many as two dozen deliveries. That means interacting with countless people, from customers to security guards to restaurant staff, not to mention surfaces like door handles, intercoms and elevator buttons in buildings all over the city.
Two weeks ago, before New York's restaurant shutdown, I delivered ramen, pizza and burgers to a city that was already on edge. With each order, I wondered if I might be unlucky enough to meet a customer who had the virus without knowing it, or enter a building where the virus was present. Of course, I had gotten an email from the service I was working for, UberEats, reminding me to wash my hands frequently. But when you’re a delivery worker, you don’t carry a sink around with you. I used my little bottle of hand sanitizer so often that I nearly ran out — and considered going home if I did.
Responding to the increasing dangers, apps like Postmates, UberEats, and DoorDash have introduced a new "contactless deliveries” feature, which allow us to make drop-offs in the building lobby, with a doorman, or outside a customer’s door. The catch is, only customers can choose this option when ordering — and some are still not aware it exists. If they don’t select it, we are still expected to hand their order to them in person, and that puts us both at risk.
A few days ago, I decided things were getting too dangerous and stopped doing deliveries. As a freelance writer, I am fortunate enough to have other kinds of work that can hopefully make up for my lost income. But most of New York City’s delivery workers don’t have the same luxury. The vast majority of New York’s couriers are immigrants and people of color, many of them middle-aged, often with limited English, who rely on delivery for income. Many are paid well below New York’s minimum wage, which means they must work grueling shifts — as long as 10 to 12 hours a day — just to scrape by. The apps can pay as little as $3 for a delivery that might take half an hour, and some customers don’t even leave a tip.
We have to ride quickly if we want to make a living wage — whether it’s a pandemic or a blizzard.
The truth is that we are a vulnerable and underappreciated population on the best of days. For one thing, Manhattan’s tight geography means the most time and cost-efficient way to do delivery is by bicycle. We have to ride quickly if we want to make a living wage — whether it’s a pandemic or a blizzard. But this makes New York’s delivery workers uniquely vulnerable. According to research by Queens College professor Do Jun Lee, half of New York City delivery workers surveyed experience aches and pain from work every week, and 1 in 6 are in pain every day. As a result, delivery workers here miss work due to injury as much as 44 times the national annual average for all jobs.
Even without a pandemic, we face death in the streets. Last year was the deadliest year on record for New York City cyclists in nearly two decades: Out of the 29 people killed, at least seven were delivery cyclists. This reflects the inadequate bike infrastructure in New York, which like most American cities, is designed first and foremost for cars. Without protected bike lanes, delivery workers and other cyclists are funneled into New York traffic where they have to compete with speeding cabs, garbage trucks and surging fleets of rideshare vehicles. Just this week, as Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to avoid public transit and switch to biking, cyclist injuries increased 42 percent compared to the same time in March last year.
To top it off, Lee’s research has found that half of New York’s delivery workers are robbed or assaulted at least once on the job. Yet most do not go to the police for fear of further harassment. This is with good reason. For years now, de Blasio has been leading a police crackdown on delivery workers for riding throttle-powered electric bikes, which he claims are dangerous without much evidence: The NYPD’s own data shows that out of 11,000 pedestrian injuries in 2018, e-bikes were involved in just nine. But this targeted campaign against workers has been ruinous: The fine for riding an e-bike, $500, could easily equal a week or two of our earnings. (Meanwhile, the paying users of Citibike’s pedal-assisted e-bikes, or Revel’s mopeds, are free to blast around town.) That the mayor has ordered a temporary halt to the crackdown during the COVID-19 crisis only proves its absurdity.
The worst feeling, though, is not the job's physical toll or danger. It’s that we have almost no support. If you’re like me, one of the thousands of people who deliver for a Silicon Valley startup, you’re not considered an employee, just an “independent contractor.” But whether we work for a restaurant or an app, virtually no delivery worker receives health insurance through an employer, and around two-thirds of New York couriers receive no workers' compensation insurance.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, UberEats, Postmates, and Doordash have pledged to provide payments for workers who become sick with COVID-19 or are ordered by an authority to quarantine — but what about those of us who are sick but have no access to a test, or feel healthy but are staying home out of caution for ourselves and the people we live with?
Doctors have found that even surviving a “mild” case of COVID-19 could leave patients with substantially reduced lung function, and as a delivery cyclist I can’t afford that. That said, I also can’t afford to stay home forever. That’s why we need delivery companies to give us protection in the form of fair wages, insurance, paid sick leave and sanitizing equipment. Instead of police harassment, we need safer infrastructure and better labor laws. I believe we can achieve this if New Yorkers stand up to defend us. In this difficult moment, delivery workers are helping to keep you going — so hopefully you can help keep us going, too.