I had just started my lunch shift when the phone pinged: Uber Eats, pickup at Cocina del Sur on West 38th Street in Manhattan, five blocks away. Great! I pedaled down West 40th into congealing crosstown traffic.
Seconds later my phone ponged — different sound. Postmates, another delivery app: Pick up two orders at Shake Shack on Broadway and 36th?
I had to decide: Take on three orders at once and risk falling behind? Stick with Uber Eats, which was running a $10 bonus for doing six deliveries by 1:30, or try for a Postmates bonus?
Information was limited. The Uber Eats app doesn’t tell you where the delivery is going until you pick it up. I could not know what the Postmates job would pay.
The Postmates clock ticked down — you have seconds to accept or decline an order. I was threading my way around lurching honking trucks and oblivious texting pedestrians and watching for cops and looking down at the phone mounted on my handlebars and calculating delivery times.
I hit “Accept.”
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The riders, once you’re tuned in to them, are everywhere, gliding by stoically, usually on electric bikes, wearing their precious cargo on their backs: the silent swarm of tens of thousands of workers for apps like Seamless and GrubHub and Uber Eats and Caviar and DoorDash and Postmates, crisscrossing the city to gratify New Yorkers’ insatiable need for burgers and pad thai and chicken tikka masala delivered in minutes.
For a few days this spring, I was one of them. Not a good one, but a deliveryman nevertheless. I learned up close how the high-tech era of on-demand everything is transforming some of the lowest-tech, lowest-status, low-wage occupations — creating both new opportunities and new forms of exploitation.
The riders are the street-level manifestation of an overturned industry, as restaurants are forced to become e-commerce businesses, outsourcing delivery to the apps who outsource it to a fleet of freelancers.
Mindless as the job may seem, it is often like a game of real-life speed chess played across the treacherous grid of the city, as riders juggle orders from competing apps and scramble for elusive bonuses.
And there are risks. Nearly a third of delivery cyclists missed work because of on-the-job injuries last year, one survey found, and at least four delivery riders or bike messengers have been killed in crashes with cars this year. Riders on electric bikes face fines and confiscation, though that may change.
Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research for the Cornell University Worker Institute in Manhattan, called the food couriers “the most vulnerable workers in digital labor.”
“People think digital economy or the future of work, we’re all going to be these hipsters sitting by their computers or driving these luxury cars,” she said. “That’s not the case with these guys.”
The riders have much in common with their overworked gig-economy cousins who drive for Uber and Lyft. But while ride-hail drivers successfully lobbied the city for a $17 minimum wage, most delivery-app couriers are not guaranteed a cent.
Even their tips have a way of vanishing: One app subtracts the amount the customer tips from the amount it pays the courier — effectively pocketing the tip.
“The whole thing is like gambling,” said Werner Zhanay, 23, who delivers for Postmates and Caviar. “You have to be at a spot. You have to hope that there are orders there and then — do you stay at that spot?”
Delivering restaurant food has always been a hard, thankless job. With the apps, it is becoming more flexible and better paying — but in some ways less stable.
This, said Niels van Doorn, an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam who spent six months in New York studying app riders last year, “is what happens with an already precarious work force — what happens to an already invisibilized work force — when these platforms come to town.”
My own 27 hours on a borrowed electric bike, alternately hellbent and ping-starved as I navigated chaotic streets and clattering restaurant kitchens and sleek apartment towers, were an immersion in the paradoxes and perils of a job in which making more than minimum wage requires the physical daring of a bullfighter and the cognitive reflexes of a day trader. (I have neither.)
I tasted the thrill of a decent tip and the agony of accepting a blind order that took me 40 blocks uptown to deliver two bagels. And I learned what can happen if you pay attention to the traffic for a whole minute or fail to hear your phone over the sirens and jackhammers: Miss one ping and there goes your Uber Eats Quest bonus.
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My brief delivery career began in a concrete-floored office in industrial East Williamsburg. There were eight of us in plastic chairs, onboarding for DoorDash, currently the country’s leading food-delivery app. A man named Michael in a red DoorDash hoodie put up a map of a city showing red zones, hot spots and bonus zones.
“This map is always changing, always changing, always changing, it never stops changing,” Michael said.
In a few minutes, he was done: “Good luck, welcome to DoorDash, and if you make a lot of money, bring me some.”
People filed in for the next orientation — they were held every hour, making the place feel like a gold-rush town. Jobs for everyone!
At the dawn of the food-app era, back in 2016 or so, companies awash in venture capital paid fat wages with hourly guarantees and some riders made $2,000 a week.
“With Postmates you’d average $10 a job,” said Rodney Chadwick, a courier since 2016. “They’d have a Blitz and the Blitz would be like $15 a job, sometimes $20.”
As more riders signed up, supply met demand and the apps’ generosity evaporated. By 2017, Mr. Chadwick said, Postmates paid $4 or $5 a job. Riders usually do two or three orders an hour.
The riders I talked to average hourly wages in the midteens with tips, though I met a couple of Jedi Masters who cleared over $20. My rookie earnings added up to just under $10 an hour — $5 below the city’s minimum wage. (I’m donating them to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which supports social-service nonprofits in the city.)
Postmates says its couriers in New York City average $18.50 an hour. But it counts only the time when a courier is out on an order as part of that hour. The long stretches I spent staring at my silent phone like a jilted boyfriend, waiting for it to ping? Not part of my workday, according to Postmates.
The apps roll out ever-changing and often confusing menus of bonuses and incentives borrowed from the video-game and slot-machine industries, engineered to convince riders that they may yet win as long as they keep playing. But with so many riders chasing the same prizes, they often fall short.
Also, the apps keep ratcheting down base pay so that even when a rider earns a bonus, “You’re basically paying the bonus out of your own pocket,” Professor van Doorn said.
In May, Postmates got rid of its guaranteed minimum of $4 per order. A company official said that the change was intended to discourage riders from rejecting longer trips, and that it had not affected workers’ earnings. But on a Facebook group for Postmates couriers in New York, the move was greeted with outrage. One courier wrote that she made $5.05 for doing two deliveries from 96th Street to 145th Street in Manhattan. “I’m done with PM,” she wrote.
Professor van Doorn interviewed dozens of riders and found that about three-quarters were riding for multiple apps, often simultaneously, to boost their earnings.
It is no surprise, then, that many app riders are escapees from the grind of restaurant work.
“I would never go back to delivering for restaurants,” said Mengba Lee, 58, a Chinese immigrant who makes about $14 an hour riding for Caviar and Postmates.
Bahadir Rozi, a 29-year-old from Uzbekistan, uses the downtime between lunch and dinner to study acting and write — impossible if he were still pulling 12-hour restaurant shifts. “The best thing about this job is freedom,” he said.
Andrew Iroham, 49, worked in restaurants and construction for decades after arriving from Nigeria. Now he rides for Caviar, GrubHub, Uber Eats and Relay. “This job is like working for nobody,” he said. “It’s like having a boss but not having a boss.”
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With some apps, getting approved to ride is as easy as uploading I.D., passing a background check and hitting “Go” on your phone — no human interaction necessary.
It was nice not having to answer to a live person as I made my rounds. But taking orders from an all-seeing robot overlord could be eerie. “We’ve noticed you are heading in the wrong direction,” read a message from Postmates one day as I detoured for an Uber Eats order.
My interactions with customers were minimal, too. In fancy new apartment buildings and airy open-plan offices, young professional-looking people opened their doors just long enough to grab the food and mouth thanks.
This is the frictionless economy we’ve become reliant on: Tap your phone five times and a peanut-butter açaí bowl appears at your door. The only task left for human laborers is the physical transfer of goods.
Whether a courier rides for an app or a restaurant, some occupational hazards remain the same.
“In 2016, I was riding for Postmates and I broke both my arms,” said a former Postmates courier, Mike Cole. “They sent me a get-well-soon card via email.” (Some apps offer riders free accident insurance coverage.)
Delivery riders have long faced another peril: The throttle-controlled electric bikes they favor are not street-legal in New York, and the police have confiscated thousands of them. Though the bikes have been demonized as a menace to pedestrians — including by Mayor Bill de Blasio — e-bikes were involved in, at most, 0.3 percent of crashes that injured pedestrians last year, according to an analysis by an advocacy group called the Biking Public Project.
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All day long, while dodging taxi doors or battling buses for a sliver of asphalt, a delivery person thinks about time and money. How long will this order take? What will it pay? Whenever something goes wrong, it’s usually the rider’s problem.
A deliveryman in the West Village showed me screenshots of a 23-minute wait at a restaurant for which Caviar compensated him all of 83 cents. When I was dispatched to an ice cream store in Times Square that turned out to be closed, Postmates paid me 61 cents for my wasted time, then took it back. “Payout has been adjusted following your request to cancel the delivery,” the note read.
On my first DoorDash shift, a lunch run in Brooklyn, I learned about the company’s interesting tipping policy.
DoorDash offers a guaranteed minimum for each job. For my first order, the guarantee was $6.85 and the customer, a woman in Boerum Hill who answered the door in a colorful bathrobe, tipped $3 via the app. But I still received only $6.85.
Here’s how it works: If the woman in the bathrobe had tipped zero, DoorDash would have paid me the whole $6.85. Because she tipped $3, DoorDash kicked in only $3.85. She was saving DoorDash $3, not tipping me.
A DoorDash spokeswoman said that in recent surveys, Dashers said they overwhelmingly preferred this model to an old one that paid a flat fee per order. (I did typically earn more on orders for DoorDash than for Uber Eats and Postmates.)
The policy has attracted the attention of city lawmakers, though. Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx wants to require apps to tell customers whether tips go to the worker or the company. Recently, DoorDash started listing this information in the fine print on its website.
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My last day as a food courier began with an order on the East Side that included the notation “Happy Birthday” next to the recipient’s name. I sang “Happy Birthday” as I proffered her egg sandwich. “Oh, thank you!” she said, laughing. (Tip: zero.)
It ended 41 miles later in Brooklyn after a failed attempt at a four-delivery sprint that included an order getting taken away from me and assigned to another courier because I was late. “It’s all good,” the last customer said, meaning it wasn’t, as I handed over his lukewarm chicken fingers.
In between came a lunch delivery to a Class A office building in Midtown.
I was sent to a service entrance where a fellow deliveryman led me down a Dumpster-lined corridor to a crammed holding pen where couriers huddled in near-silence, food packs on their backs.
I had stumbled through a dystopian portal. I thought of what a colleague had said the day before: “You’re one step above an Amazon drone.” I thought of something Professor van Doorn had said, that the couriers’ real value to the app companies is in the data harvested like pollen as we make our rounds, data that will allow them to eventually replace us with machines.
One by one, office workers approached a window in the wall to claim their lunches. I handed my customer a spicy salami, sun-dried tomato and Brie sandwich from a restaurant a mile’s ride away.
“Thank you,” she said brightly. “Have a nice day!”
She did not tip. I filed out of the corral and hopped back on my bike.
Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting.