Gustavo Ajche (center) with two other members of Los Deliveristas Unidos. Photo by Andrea Pineda-Salgado for Epicenter-NYC.

When New York City shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic, essential workers kept the city running. Workers like Gustavo Ajche delivered essentials to people who were quarantined at home. Workers like him also made sure New York residents were able to stay safe at home while getting their favorite foods delivered from their favorite restaurants. The pandemic heightened the need for delivery workers, as many found themselves without a job working at restaurants since they were closed for indoor dining and had to turn to delivery apps, such as GrubHub, DoorDash, UberEats and Relay to survive financially.

However, these same workers that were called “essential workers” and praised for their resilience since they kept on working through the pandemic were some of the most vulnerable to exploitation. The pandemic heightened issues delivery workers like Ajche faced, such as not getting paid a minimum wage (they are considered independent contractors, therefore they are not paid like NYC employees) or not having access to restaurant bathrooms. 

Ajche has been a food delivery worker since 2004, when he came to the United States from Guatemala with his wife, leaving behind two children. He worked for several restaurants for many years until he switched over to food delivery apps in 2016. He is a food delivery worker by day and a construction worker in the evening. He needs both jobs to support his family in Guatemala where his children are currently in college. 

“It’s like all work, there are days when you get frustrated, or you get upset, but there are days where you have a good time. You can hang out with other workers and you meet people from all over the place, Latinos, non-Latinos it’s nice,” Ajche said. 

But, he too, has had experiences on the job that led him to co-found the Los Deliveristas Unidos group in March 2020, a group of mostly immigrant delivery workers who are fighting and organizing for rights and protections for app food delivery workers. His biggest issue: delivering a big or long distance order and not getting tipped what he was promised on the app.

“I’ve run into situations that many times when you arrive to leave an order, the amount of the tip that appears on the receipt is different from what appears on the app and the client says something else. Then it is frustrating because sometimes you go and you are happy and want to receive a good tip. When the [other workers] see you on the street with a bigger bag they say “You’re going to get a good tip. You’re going to make money there.” But sometimes you don’t get the full tip and it’s frustrating,” he said. “Sometimes you complain to the restaurant  but they say, ‘No talk to your app.’ If you complain to the app, they said it is a problem with the restaurant. Or sometimes they say it’s the client, so sometimes there is nothing you can do.”

There are many reasons why customers may not tip their workers. The most rational reason is that a worker may have taken too long to bring their food. But oftentimes customers don’t stop to think why their food got to their front door so late—most times it is because the apps make delivery workers travel impossible distances that end up exceeding the promised delivery time.

“When we order from the app, you assume the gentleman is coming [from] close by. Like you assume ‘Oh he’s just coming from a couple of blocks down.’ The reality is not that. For many of these workers, the apps are sending them from Brooklyn to deliver something in Manhattan, or I’m coming from Manhattan to deliver something the Bronx,” says Hildalyn Colón Hernández, director of policy & strategic partnerships at Los Deliveristas Unidos. 

“You can be uptown and you are supposed to deliver something downtown. And these apps are expecting that they complete these orders in a ridiculous amount of time. And not even by car or on a train will you get there on time,” she said.

Ajche also gets frustrated when people don’t follow traffic laws, which puts delivery workers who are on their scooters and bikes in danger. “There are places where only bikes are supposed to pass through, but sometimes the city doesn’t care about that,” he said. 

But perhaps one of the biggest issues for Ajche and many delivery workers have is lack of access to bathrooms. Especially throughout the pandemic, restaurants closed their doors to everyone, including delivery workers and although they were delivering their food, many restaurants did not allow delivery workers to use their restrooms. 

“One of the experiences that I have had is that people deny you access to a bathroom. And sometimes, pitifully, sometimes you have the same Latino restaurant management that tells you ‘no, you can’t get in.’ Even though others can enter the bathroom, they only tell you it is just for customers or that it is out of order. But if you’re working for them too by delivering their food,” he said. “So that’s kept giving me strength and kept motivating me to fight to get to where we are today.”

On September 23, the city council passed six bills that addressed each of these issues:

  • Restaurants will be required to allow delivery workers to use their restrooms.
  • Apps will be prohibited from soliciting a tip from customers unless they clearly state how much goes to the delivery worker. 
  • Food delivery apps will be required to pay their workers at least once a week, and to not charge them in order to receive payment. 
  • Apps will be mandated to allow workers to set a maximum distance per delivery trip, they will be allowed to set parameters around bridges and tunnels. 
  • Food delivery apps will be required to provide workers with a free insulated bag to work, after six deliveries have been made. 
  • The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection will be mandated to conduct a study on what delivery workers should be paid based on their total income, expenses, required equipment, safety conditions, and then set a minimum payment per trip.

“This was the first step. What these workers accomplished last week has never been done in the country. Independent workers have never been regulated to establish minimum working conditions,” said Colon Hernandez. 

Although this was a great first step, there is still a lot of work to be done. One of the biggest issues the bills fail to address is that delivery workers are still classified as independent contractors, and are not eligible for worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits. 

Another issue not addressed by the bills is making it easier for workers to appeal when their accounts get deactivated (essentially — fired). 

“Right now, if they deactivate them there’s no path for them to get it back. There’s no transparency of how that process takes place. You can be deactivated because a customer alleges a complaint, alleging that you got so late that already put you in a path to be deactivated. When a customer alleges something [the delivery person is put] on hold, they will stop working. But they don’t have any way to say, ‘well, there’s an allegation, let me [tell my side] of the story.’ And that process can take months, can take years or, some of them were deactivated and they never got it reinstated. So they lost a little bit of the income that they have,” Colon Hernandez said.

The group will continue to fight for their rights, and in the meantime Colon Hernandez and Ajche said there are many ways people can help delivery workers. 

Colon Hernandez said it’s as easy as saying hello when you see a delivery worker to acknowledge them.

“When they deliver the food, just for those five minutes to be like, ‘Did you receive the tip? Or thank you for your work.’ It’s just simple things that I will tell you. There’s been great Samaritans. Many of the times when there were accidents, people in the middle of the street stop and help them. We appreciate that a lot—and they can sometimes document what happened and just keep supporting them,” she added.

“I think what we always ask for is dignity, because sometimes people are abrupt, grotesque, and they snatch away the food and blame it on you that maybe the food came late or cold, but often it’s not the fault of the food delivery worker,” Ajche said. “What I would ask of New Yorkers is to have compassion. Many of the times when the food is late, most of the time, it is not the fault of the delivery man, it is the restaurant or it is the application that is giving you two or three orders and they give you the order of how to deliver meals. What I’m asking for is compassion, and to value the work of the food delivery worker.”

To learn more about and support Los Deliveristas Unidos, who were created from the Workers Justice Project you can check out their website, and follow them on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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