The delivery worker who fetches your falafel has always faced a gauntlet of obstacles while earning minimal pay. Every third-party company has an algorithm that takes time and ingenuity to master. Takeout pirates can grab food that isn’t theirs. Bad weather can derail a bike courier. A parking ticket can cancel out a driver’s income. And forget about finding a bathroom.

“These workers are isolated,” says Katie Wells, a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She’s been studying gig workers, like delivery drivers, in D.C. for four years. “They internalize workplace difficulties as personal failures. ‘I wasn’t smart enough to make it work.’ Or, ‘I didn’t work hard enough.’” Instead, Wells argues, delivery drivers should be asking why the system sets them up to fail.

When the COVID-19 pandemic put dine-in service at restaurants on hold, delivery drivers became essential workers. Their services enable restaurants to make a little money, while also allowing residents to obtain hot meals without cooking or leaving the house. Although their work allows others to stay safe, delivery drivers face contracting the virus themselves. 

“These jobs might have always been financially questionable or predatory, but now we’re talking about something very different,” Wells says. “Those who are wealthy think, ‘I’m going to offload the risk of contracting this virus to those who can’t afford to stop working.’”

Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub, Caviar, and Postmates currently classify couriers as independent contractors, which allows them to skip out on offering benefits such as workers’ compensation, guaranteed minimum wage, or overtime pay. That means the workers who bring your pizza from point A to point B are doing somewhat dangerous jobs with limited physical or financial protection from the companies they contract for. They constantly weigh risk and reward, race the clock, and face the realities that come with relying on tips.

Wells explains that gig economy companies “can be vindictive when drivers speak out,” citing an example of a protest ride-hailing app drivers joined at Reagan National Airport. She says some drivers who participated were subsequently kicked off the platforms.City Paper offered couriers anonymity for this story and, unless otherwise noted, is referring to couriers by their first names only. 

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“You’re definitely putting yourself at risk every time you leave your controlled environment,” says Sarah, a DoorDash courier who asked that City Paper identify her with a pseudonym. She typically works in retail, but since her store is currently closed, she’s trying out delivering food. “You have to decide how much you feel comfortable with, which is hard when you don’t know what to expect,” she says. 

She hopes the ReOpen DC Advisory Group, tasked with plotting D.C.’s reopening strategy, comes up with uniform rules for keeping delivery drivers safe. “If we’re all on the same page, we can do this work and not feel like we should be getting occupational hazard pay.” 

Some delivery drivers are new to the job, including restaurant workers who were laid off, like Sam. He’s using his bike to deliver for Caviar while he waits for his old job to be restored. “I’m a mostly healthy 27-year-old dude with some bad habits, but there is assumed risk,” he says. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to make much money on any given day. It really is like going fishing.” On a busy Friday or Saturday, he pedals up to 40 miles to bring people food. “I find joy in it because I like being out,” he says, “but I really do have misgivings about the nature of the company I work for.” 

Some individuals who drive for ride-hailing apps are trying out food delivery because they worry about having passengers in their cars. “A number of drivers who didn’t do food delivery have gotten into food delivery for the first time or drastically ramped that up,” says Taylor Woods from rideshare driver advocacy group Drive United. “Food delivery is not seen as a liberating mechanism, but more of a necessary evil.”

Derege andCarlos made the switch from Uber to Uber Eats because of COVID-19. “I don’t have any other options,” Derege says. “I have bills to pay. It’s really busy, but you still have to hustle. I’m worried about the virus. Every time you have contact with other people, you think you’re safe if you’re wearing gloves, but how many times are you touching your phone or cleaning your car?” 

“Once the pandemic came, I didn’t feel comfortable putting anyone in the car,” Carlos says. “That’s my car and I have a family, so I have to make sure they’re OK. That’s why I switched over to Uber Eats.” Carlos wears a mask and carries hand sanitizer. “It took me a month and a half to find some,” he says. “I constantly use that. I have six or seven bottles. I guess I shouldn’t say that too loud.” 

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s most recent executive order mandates that everyone entering an essential business, including restaurants, wear a face covering. That doesn’t always happen, according to Espita Mezcaleria managing partner Josh Phillips. “About three quarters of drivers coming in nowadays don’t wear one, or at best cover their faces with their arm,” he says. When he asks why their faces are bare, they respond that they can’t find or afford a mask.

“These people are risking their health so we can all feel safe at home and still eat fancy restaurant food,” Phillips continues. “The least these companies could do is provide free protective equipment for them.”

The delivery drivers City Paper interviewed procured their own protective gear, despite the fact that Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash say they have masks, gloves, and sanitizer available for free. The disconnect suggests companies either aren’t communicating effectively or aren’t following through on their promises.

Yannickhas been driving for Postmates since 2018. She’s been wearing a mask and gloves and covering her head while working ever since the pandemic took hold in D.C. She purchased everything herself, except for the masks and sanitizer some customers have left her as a gesture of thanks. “[Postmates] has offered, however we’ve had difficulty receiving it because of the scarcity of a lot of items,” she says. Postmates declined to comment about protective equipment and what steps they’re taking to keep couriers safe. 

Uber Eats told drivers to pick up PPE at their Greenlight Hub, according to both Carlos and an Uber Eats representative. Uber’s website says all Greenlight Hubs are temporarily closed. Carlos also tried asking for a mask by mail and has been waiting more than a month for it to arrive. Meanwhile, Uber Eats instituted a new policy on May 18: Drivers must prove they’re wearing a face covering by taking a selfie before they can start working.

Caviar bike courier Sam recalls receiving a notification two months ago that said the company, which DoorDash acquired last year, would be delivering protective gear to couriers. “That hasn’t materialized yet,” he says. 

A DoorDash spokesperson says they created free health kits and added masks once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people wear them. To obtain a kit, couriers are supposed to put in a request through the app using their email address on file with DoorDash or Caviar and then pay a subsidized shipping fee. 

Still, there are some delivery drivers who don’t believe the money is worth gambling their health, even if they can find suitable protective equipment. Some may live in multigenerational households with relatives at higher risk of complications from the virus. Couriers who can’t work can apply for unemployment benefits, though contract workers sometimes receive less benefits than traditional employees. 

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Couriers constantly watch the clock. Long waits at restaurants and late arrivals at residences are often beyond their control but can cost them money at the end of the day.

“I was picking up on Cinco de Mayo from Surfside in Dupont,” Sarah says. “I pull up and 30 other drivers are waiting. If you’ve been there, you know it’s just a tiny window. Everyone was crowded together. Two groups of people were screaming at each other. I’m standing back, not trying to get too close. Someone cut the line and a literal fist fight broke out.” Pickup spots can become pressure cookers. “People are worried if they’re five or ten minutes late, they’re not going to get a tip at all,” Sarah says. “People are really desperate.”

Drivers are battling new external factors, and some restaurants are doing to-go food for the first time and might take longer to fulfill orders, so customers should be patient. “We’re so used to instant gratification—where food is at your door within 30 minutes without fail,” Sarah says. “So when that doesn’t happen, we’re so quick to blame each other or not tip someone.”

Long waits for small orders are a big frustration for drivers. Ahmad, a former rideshare driver who asked to be identified only by his last name, tried Uber Eats, but determined it wasn’t worth the trouble after a bad day at the McDonald’s on 14th Street NW. He accepted what he thought would be a quick order guaranteeing him $3.25 from Uber Eats. But then he was stuck waiting under the Golden Arches for 25 minutes. With a $2.75 tip, he netted $6 for 30 minutes worth of work. 

For former delivery driver Caitlin Schiavoni, finding parking was the biggest time suck. She drove for most companies, but found Caviar the most favorable. “Customers can track couriers,” she says. “‘Why is this idiot going around in circles? Why haven’t they stopped and given me the food?’ Because they can’t find somewhere legal to park!”

When Schiavoni sensed her tip money was slipping away, she’d park illegally, hoping to slip in and out unscathed. “There were so many times I’d run out to them putting a ticket on my car,” she says. She wishes the city would grant permits to delivery drivers so they could park in loading zones and other designated areas. “It would solve so much anxiety about parking and money issues.” 

Parking wasn’t the only problem. When Schiavoni pulled up to residences, customers wouldn’t always pick up the phone. “They’re showering, they took their dog for a walk, or they fell asleep,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I got somewhere and called and called. Did you not think I was going to try to go fast? That’s the whole point of me doing this. The whole time you’re waiting, you’re losing money.”

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Schiavoni, who has also worked in restaurants, isn’t sure people ordering on apps know drivers depend on tips for the lion’s share of their earnings. “To get a good tip depending on how far you’re driving, you need to accept something over $35,” she says. “Just like serving, you don’t want to serve somebody who only orders a Coke and sits there for two hours.”

Some platforms assign drivers a score based on a number of factors, including customer ratings and percentage of deliveries accepted. Schiavoni knew how to work the system, but could only control so much. “I’d try to wait for a big one, and I’d decline 10 little ones. But I’d have to take a small one eventually or my score would go down,” she says.

Schiavoni says she “got stiffed” on tips more frequently as a delivery driver than as a restaurant worker. “Or they only give you a couple of dollars for delivering large orders,” she says, noting she was tipped in cannabis once, but gave it away. “That’s when you fall back on delivery fees, which you don’t always get all of. You’re not making hourly. People don’t treat it like the tip model that it is.” 

One bad delivery can throw off a whole day’s wages, especially because some delivery apps permit couriers to complete multiple deliveries at once. “If you have three deliveries to pick up and you get a call that the first one gave you the wrong food, now you have three [orders] that are late because you have to go back to get the correct food,” Schiavoni continues. “Then you have three customers who don’t tip you.”

Drivers can predict when they’re going to get slighted. “I had to go to Toastique to pick up one juice,” Sarah says. “As soon as I got it I was like, ‘I’m definitely not getting tipped for this.’” She delivered it three blocks away and left it on an empty desk as she was instructed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, couriers offer contactless delivery to minimize interaction. She was right. “I understand you want the convenience, but why won’t you tip?” 

Even though contactless delivery is now the norm, Sam still wants to provide good service. He estimates that 50 to 60 percent of his Caviar income comes from tips. “As much as I don’t like random calls from people, I’ll text the customer and say, ‘Enjoy and be safe,’ to add some modicum of a human element. Otherwise it feels like a ghost is dropping off your food.” 

He’s intrigued by the new DC To-GoGo grassroots delivery platform that the owners of Ivy and Coney started earlier this month. Its goal is to provide an alternative to third-party apps that puts more money in the hands of restaurants and delivery drivers. The middle membership tier involves restaurants hiring their own delivery drivers—ideally employees they’ve laid off. DC To-GoGo asks restaurants to pay these drivers a base wage of $18 an hour.

“If they can sustain that, that’s incredible,” Sam says. He thinks only restaurants that crank out orders can afford to pay that much. “I don’t know that the average restaurant, especially on a weekday, can handle that.” 

While hyperlocal alternatives to traditional delivery services may respond to some of the injustices of the job, the reality is the industry suffers from what Georgetown’s Wells calls “the Titanic problem.” 

“These workers have been told the automated vehicle is coming and their jobs are going to disappear,” she says. “The thought is, why unionize the engine room while the ship is sinking? Why work to fix these jobs if they’re going to disappear anyway?” 

It’s a dejected feeling shared by delivery drivers, including Tony. “Nobody wants me to make a good living just delivering food,” he says. “All these things are done to make it cheaper for the customer.” 

While drones are currently prohibited in D.C., Tony doesn’t think it’ll be long before he’s replaced by one. “The lobbyists will get that taken away,” he says. “Jeff Bezos lives here. In the future, maybe chefs will have a personal touch for food that you can’t replace. But as far as delivery—we can be replaced in seconds.”