For months, gig workers have had to navigate all the complications and fears that can come with making deliveries during a pandemic, trying to stay safe while still doing enough to earn a living. Now many face the added challenge of doing all that amid widespread protests and strictly enforced curfews that vary by city.
On Thursday evening, videos widely circulated on Twitter appeared to show a courier for the food delivery service Caviar being arrested after the curfew in New York City, despite delivery people being among those exempted from the curfew as essential workers. A spokesperson for Caviar, which is owned by DoorDash, said the company is “alarmed” by the reports and that it is “gathering information and is in contact with City officials to determine what transpired.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the incident is “NOT acceptable and must stop.”
The video is one of several that has spread on social media this week purporting to show delivery workers being arrested for doing their jobs. These incidents serve as worrisome reminders of the potential risks delivery workers must take to earn money, especially right now.
In interviews with CNN Business, several delivery workers across the country described rethinking whether and how to continue doing their jobs at a time of sweeping civil unrest. The workers said they must confront a range of new issues from clogged streets to fears of getting stopped by law enforcement.
One delivery worker in New York City said he has had no choice but to bike on sidewalks to bypass groups of people gathering in the streets in recent days. He has accepted orders to pick up deliveries at restaurants only to find out upon arrival that the businesses had closed for the day. At one point in between orders, the worker said, he witnessed a group of people breaking windows on a storefront in Lower Manhattan.
The worker, who primarily delivers for DoorDash and spoke to CNN Business on the condition of anonymity for fear of being deactivated from the platform, said he has delivered past the curfew and feels he has even been incentivized to do so – however modestly – because DoorDash offered bonuses of $1-$4 on orders depending on the neighborhood this week.
“I think it’s crazy, with everything on fire and giving me a $2 bonus – it’s because they know people have to work,” the worker told CNN Business. He lost his previous job earlier this year and turned to delivery services like DoorDash as his financial lifeline. “Since I didn’t know the pandemic was going to hit, I didn’t have much money saved,” he said.
A spokesperson for DoorDash didn’t dispute the worker’s assertion about incentive offerings this week, saying that even if delivery workers are exempt from a city’s curfew, the company will continue to monitor those markets and choose when and how to implement or suspend market incentives.
“The health and safety of our community of Dashers, merchants, and customers remains our top priority. At this time, DoorDash is tailoring operations based on the guidance we have received from governments, including suspending service to abide by local curfews or reducing hours for the safety of our community,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
GrubHub and Postmates issued similar statements to CNN Business. An Uber spokesperson said the company has been regularly communicating with delivery people about the curfews and safety. Concerning its workers in New York City, a spokesperson said the company “will offer legal support to Eats delivery people if they are wrongly arrested for violating the curfew while delivering on the app and aggressively petition City Hall and the NYPD on their behalf.”
With millions of Americans out of work and an unemployment rate of 13.3%, the gig economy may have an increased allure for some people as a way to keep earning money right now. But workers for services such as DoorDash, Postmates, and Uber Eats have to weigh their own health against their financial needs in the midst of a public health crisis. Many can’t afford to stay home and not work and because the companies largely treat their workers as independent contractors – a status that is currently being challenged in the state of California – they don’t receive benefits such as health insurance, paid time off or sick leave.
In cities where delivery workers do qualify to continue working throughout the evening, they face the anxiety of not knowing what they may encounter outside.
Some, like Daniel Amram, a delivery worker for Postmates, Caviar and Uber Eats in New York City, said the fear kept him home the first night of the curfew but he has been able to largely work as normal since, with a tight deadline to stop before subway service ends for the evening.
Others, like Ron Walter, a delivery worker for DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub in Denver, said he’s been strategically driving outside city limits to the suburbs to avoid bumping up against the curfew. When commuting home from making deliveries one night this week, he said he felt an uneasiness that he could get pulled over.
“For those who are making ends meet by delivering food and groceries during the pandemic, this is going to be another source of anxiety, insecurity, and economic instability,” Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, said about the curfews. “Gig workers are disproportionately people of color, many of whom have already experienced police harassment.”
Black people were overrepresented in on-demand, in-person gig jobs when compared to their overall share of employment, as were Hispanic people, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“They are going to be reticent to go out to work because of the curfew, even if they are considered essential workers,” added Dubal.
The curfews also limit the opportunity for customers to place orders – and workers to deliver them – in certain markets. In Philadelphia, an earlier curfew meant restaurants were ordered to close at 6 pm, leaving workers who typically do restaurant delivery in the evening in the lurch.
“A lot of delivery drivers are black and brown people and it feels like yet another not-so-subtle way that we are systemically kept from resources,” Erica Lee, who works for DoorDash in Philadelphia, wrote in a message to CNN Business.
Lee, who has done deliveries for more than a year to supplement her income, decided the risk of being out past curfew and potentially getting pulled over wasn’t worth it. She has temporarily stopped doing deliveries.