Food Delivery Workers’ Labor Conditions Are Abysmal

Earning less than minimum wage, suffering constant harassment and assault, even being ordered to continue delivering food after suffering a concussion on the job: food delivery drivers are toiling under incredibly brutal working conditions.

An Uber Eats delivery courier rides an electric bicycle through the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, on Friday, March 26, 2021. (Amir Hamja / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Shortly after Assad, a full-time delivery driver in Washington, DC, began working in the delivery business, he was hit by a car while on the job. His e-bike, which he had purchased for the job, was still operational. When he called the delivery company to inform them of the accident, they urged him to still deliver the food that he was carrying. So he did.

The delivery company’s response to Assad’s workplace accident is not uncommon. The Instant Delivery Workplace in D. C., a new Georgetown University study of delivery workers in the nation’s capital that draws on interviews with Assad and forty other such workers, finds that 23 percent of them report on-the-job workplace collisions. Several of the workers in the study say that they do not report car crashes to their employers out of fear that it will jeopardize their work.

“Indeed, one worker in this study ended up with a DoorDash violation for an incomplete delivery when she was hit by a car,” write Katie J. Wells and Isabella Stratta, the report’s authors. “She needed an ambulance and, in the fog of her concussion, believes she forgot to inform the company what had happened to the food she was supposed to deliver.”

Lacking employee status and the benefits and protections it entails, the delivery workforce of the gig economy must shoulder the burden of workplace accidents on their own. There is no workers’ comp for these “independent contractors.” And it’s an incredibly frequent occurrence: in addition to the 23 percent of the DC workers reporting collisions, a report on New York City’s delivery workers found that 49 percent of them had been involved in such on-the-job accidents.

But the damage to one’s health, not to mention the cost of such wear and tear on one’s delivery vehicle and the possible job penalties that follow from vehicle collisions, are but one facet of these workers’ many risks. Some others: the potential health risks, not to mention the guaranteed discomfort, that come from lacking bathroom access while on the job (51 percent of the report’s interviewees faced this problem); assault and harassment on the job (41 percent had experienced this, and three delivery drivers were killed while on the job in DC between 2021 and 2023); underpayment or no payment for jobs (49 percent, with many workers experiencing a job paying less than the app told them it would — the opaque pay system, what one driver calls a “mysterious black hole,” leaves them little recourse to contest such underpayment); and unpaid time spent waiting between deliveries (one worker tells the authors that this adds up to nearly half of his workday).

A DoorDash delivery person rides a bicycle on the Upper West Side during a snow storm on February 1, 2021, in New York City. (Noam Galai / Getty Images)

What can be done about any of this? Classifying these drivers as employees of the companies they work for remains the key demand; it would go a long way if DC began applying the ABC test” (which the city already applies to its construction workforce) to the gig companies. Elected officials at the federal level have shown time and again that they are too firmly allied with these companies to tackle the issue at the level of the country, but should local elected leaders have the desire to distinguish themselves from such shameful failures and actually serve their constituents, pushing to end the misclassification on which gig companies rely would be a good start.

The study’s authors offer recommendations that could be implemented immediately. Washington, DC, enacted the Fair Meals Delivery Act this year, which entitles customers to know how much money they will be charged for a particular delivery order. Delivery drivers could be given a similar right to know. That act can also be amended to add that any agreement between a restaurant and a meal delivery service also mandates bathroom access for workers who are delivering for the restaurant.

Many of the workers in the Georgetown study make below DC’s minimum wage of $16.10 per hour; 49 percent of them report annual household incomes of less than $48,000, well below a living wage for a family of two in the city. Further, 13 percent of the workers earn so little that they receive food stamps or other forms of public assistance to supplement their income. A solution: “initiate a prevailing wage or, in the least, a minimum trip payment for instant food delivery drivers.” New York City has legislation of this sort, as does Seattle; delivery workers, of whom there are tens of thousands in major US cities, should not be exempt from minimum wage laws.

The pandemic was a blessing for meal delivery companies, which saw profits balloon as those who could stay home did so, often riding out COVID-19 by outsourcing the risk of infection to the delivery workers who kept them fed. For instance, per TechCrunch, “In 2020, a 500 percent increase in order volume drove Instacart’s revenue to $1.5 billion — attracting $1 billion in capital at a $39 billion valuation in 2021.” Many workers shifted to meal delivery, including several of the workers interviewed in the Georgetown study. With such an expansion came an intensification of the crisis these workers endure. It’s past time to address it.