Credit: Paul Sableman / CC BY

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D.C. has earned national attention for a series of labor protections that go beyond what neighboring states have passed, including a $16.10 minimum wage that is set to increase in July of this year. Compare that to $13.25 in Maryland and $12 in Virginia.

And last November, D.C. voted to pass Initiative 82, with an overwhelmingly large margin, that gradually eliminates the two-tier wage system for restaurant workers where tips are used to supplement an employee’s hourly pay.

But for another subset of restaurant industry employees, this momentous win, and some of the District’s other pro-labor policies, don’t apply. In a recently released report, Katie Wells, a postdoctoral Fritz Fellow at Georgetown University, and Isabella Stratta, a student analyst in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, spoke to 41 workers from the 20 meal, grocery, and alcohol delivery services that are active in D.C. region, including DoorDash, Grubhub, Amazon Fresh, Instacart, and Drizly. The researchers found a disregard for delivery drivers’ safety, unjust working conditions, confusing and unpredictable wage structures, and, at times, unpaid work.

The report, “The Instant Delivery Workplace in D.C.,” adds to the evidence of exploitative business models and practices of today’s gig economy, despite efforts by local officials to combat them. The findings outlined in the report highlight the prevalence of these business models, in part because of their popularity among consumers, and point to deepening racial inequities. The industry’s workforce is mostly made up of people of color, and a significant portion are immigrants, according to Wells’ report.

As the pandemic kept diners at home, the demand for third-party delivery services increased, and some workers who were in positions with high risks of infection were drawn to the flexible and contactless labor that delivery apps promised.

Now the effects of the pandemic are subsiding, and D.C. has returned to indoor dining, but the demand for delivery remains—as have the questionable practices of these third-party apps. Even so, the flexibility offered by these delivery companies is a major draw for laborers—46 percent of workers in the study said “they plan to continue with instant delivery work for at least six more months” and “would recommend the job to a friend,” the report says. Those findings complicate Wells’ “picture of the instant delivery food workplace,” the report acknowledges, “but they do not negate the concerns.”

Many of the employees in Wells’ study cited flexibility and the option to pick up extra work while maintaining scheduling autonomy as their main reason for signing up in the first place. 

But that same autonomy leaves workers alone when issues arise, according to Wells. Their status as “independent contractors” means workers are responsible for the cost of equipment—cars, gas, and insurance—as well as any other job-related expenses. This arrangement, the study finds, “makes it difficult for instant delivery workers—even full-time ones—to earn a living wage” because of high fees and unexpected costs. 

Similarly, these jobs offer none of the benefits and protections that usually come with more traditional, salaried employment, such as health insurance, retirement benefits, or paid sick leave. Medical leave in particular is important given the potential health risks for these workers while on the job, the study finds. While there are currently no federal requirements for paid sick leave, employees in D.C. are entitled to up to 12 weeks of sick leave, 12 weeks of parental leave, and 12 weeks to care for a family member in critical health.

Bike courier Josh of @bikingdc, the Instagram account that has gone viral for his wildly skilled and captivating posts of his food delivery adventures, depicts some of the obstacles delivery workers face day-to-day, but Wells’ report dives deeper into the dangers and the systemic issues preventing change. 

Wells found that 51 percent of the workers interviewed said they have felt unsafe or feared for their physical well-being on the job, with Black, Hispanic, or Asian workers more likely than White workers to share experiences of assault, harassment, and other safety issues.

As policymakers in D.C. are searching for ways to get armed carjackings under control, Wells’ report says that “delivery drivers are especially targeted for vehicle thefts.”

“In six months of 2020 alone, the city saw 309 of 876 motor vehicle thefts involving delivery workers,” the report says. The impact on this group is further exacerbated since a stolen car also affects their ability to earn an income. 

Wells says one of the most surprising realizations she took away from this research was how detached these workers are from each other. Isolation means delivery drivers are more vulnerable to exploitation and blocks potential pathways toward improvement, she explains. Where Initiative 82 passed thanks in part due to dedicated advocacy and collaboration from restaurant workers, Wells says it’s less likely that self-employed delivery drivers will organize as they each work in silos.

Isolation has an impact on delivery drivers’ mental health as well, the researchers found. Without the ability to share experiences and commiserate with their coworkers, the drivers told researchers that they blame any setbacks on themselves and their perceived inabilities, “as opposed to, ‘wow this is a really shitty system, and I’m set up to fail,’” Wells says. 

With every interview, Wells says the researchers asked if each worker would have any questions for fellow delivery drivers. Many wanted to know: Are you making money? Is this working for you? 

Wells says she hopes her research will help these delivery drivers “to see each other and be seen.” She says she sees hope for a more just gig economy labor system from several global examples of workers successfully coming together to improve their working conditions, including Seattle’s Starbucks employees and locally with Politics and Prose, whose employees became the first at a D.C. bookstore to unionize.

But Wells also emphasizes the importance of enacting legislation to improve working conditions. She says improving workers’ rights in this sector will ensure they have the tools to organize and advocate for themselves in the future. The study makes several direct recommendations for policymakers, including mandatory bathroom access for delivery workers in restaurants, improved assessment of potential violations of local labor standards, and a prevailing wage or minimum per-trip tip, as well as greater pay transparency. 

The report applauds a recent proposal from Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, the “Expanding Access to Public Restrooms Act of 2023,” suggesting this legislation stands to offer a model for increasing delivery worker bathroom access. 

Wells says several lawmakers are pushing legislation that stands to make an impact in these efforts. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who is making opening remarks at the April 19 event where Wells will officially present her research, is “thinking thoughtfully about the relationship between the restaurant industry and these delivery apps,” she says. Allen’s bill aims to protect restaurants on instant delivery platforms from facing a tiered fee system that determines how prominently a restaurant shows up on a given app. But the Council tabled the emergency legislation after the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington raised concerns.

Wells also highlights Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George’s Green New Deal, which includes provisions for providing D.C. workers with the tools to unionize and creates, what Wells considers, stable green jobs. The bill, Wells says, “steps back to say, ‘Look, it’s not just infrastructure that’s at stake here.’ It’s about looking at the greater effects climate will have on the city and its workforce.”

Wells connects the goal of the report to legislative efforts on several distinct issues from supporting small businesses to improving road safety to mitigating the effects of climate change. Rather than just looking at the poor treatment of delivery workers, she says the report works to examine the root of the issue—and “rethinking the blank check” written to the large corporations behind popular delivery apps—and the different spaces in which the consequences appear.

“I want to think about the whole ecosystem together,” Wells says.