Migrant Gig Workers Organize in New York City: Deliveristas Unidos & the Fight to Regulate Food Delivery Apps

December 12, 2022
By: Martha Guerrero
Photo by Sammy Escalante

A few days into the new year of 2021, Gustavo Ajche forced himself to go back to work making food deliveries after almost two weeks off. His e-bike had slid on an icy Manhattan street during the massive snowstorm that blanketed the city in December 2020, and the fall left him unable to cycle. “Everything hurt,” recounted Ajche. “I could barely move.”

While still in a great deal of pain, the K’iche’ Mayan courier from Guatemala said he knew he couldn’t afford to take any more days to recover. “Bills don’t wait. And at least I didn’t break anything.” The now 39-year-old courier fastened his helmet, zipped his layered jackets all the way up to keep the cold out, and hopped back on his electrical bike.

Ajche had ended 2020 on a sour note — injured, disheartened, and constantly reminiscing about his fifteen years as a restaurant employee before having been pushed to become a courier for food delivery apps over three years ago. “I used to have a human boss,” he remembered. “Now it feels like I work for a ghost on my phone.”

Mexicans and Central Americans in New York

Ajche came to New York City in 2001, accompanied by his wife and leaving his two then young children back home in Guatemala. His arrival follows the rise of Central American migration in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which coexisted with replenished flows of Mexican migrants after the guestworker Bracero Program was dismantled in 1965. 

As Mexican and Central American migration to New York City accelerated during the 1980s, male indigenous workers like Ajche flocked to construction sites, restaurant kitchens, stores, and manufacturing plants, while undocumented women labored across domestic and corporate spaces, cleaning, cooking, and caring for children and elderly residents. 

While Mexican settlement had largely concentrated in the Southwest and southern California through the twentieth century and Central American migrations were previously recorded in mid-Atlantic and West Coast cities, mass arrivals of this multiethnic diaspora to the metropolitan Northeast substantially increased during the last four decades. As the total Central American-born population in the US grew over tenfold since 1980, Mexicans experienced the highest rate of population growth in New York City during the 1990s. At least half a million people of Mexican origin were living in New York State by the early 2000s and around 8% of the nearly 4 million Central American migrants in the US were in New York by the late 2010s.[1]

In his life before delivery apps, Ajche spent most of the 2000s and early 2010s working as service and kitchen staff for several pizzerias in the lower East Side. “I brought the pizzas to customers, cleaned a bit, arranged the sodas, helped out in the kitchen, you name it.” Despite long hours, no social benefits, and earnings below minimum wage, restaurant work provided him access to simple perks that would later become untenable luxuries as a delivery app worker. Things like a restroom, four walls to keep warm, a place to rest, essential safety standards, and a human patrón he could talk to. “I had basic rights,” described Ajche. 

Mainly working for Italian restaurants and pizzerias, Ajche especially looked forward to the winter holidays, when some managers gifted him food and a little extra cash, or what he called his “Christmas bonus.” “I always hosted a party, and the guys would bring wine, and panettone, and anything else our bosses gifted us,” he said. “I felt like a real person.” By the end of 2020, the closest Ajche got to a Christmas bonus was a series of corporate emails from delivery apps, thanking him for his essential work during the pandemic. “My heart sunk,” he said. “They don’t even consider us real employees, but hey, they’re thankful.”

Like Ajche, many low-wage migrant workers across New York’s restaurants saw their long-held jobs as busboys, cleaners, and pizza delivery couriers disappear with the rise of third-party apps in the mid-2010s. “Restaurants stopped hiring like before,” detailed Ajche. “And so, many of us had to start working for the apps.”

Gustavo Ajche, co-founder of Deliveristas Unidos. Photo by Sammy Escalante.

The Rise of Food Delivery Apps

Over the last decade, food delivery has morphed into a fast-growing tech industry, with a global market worth more than $150 billion, tripling since 2017. In the US, the market more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching projections of over $30 billion by 2022. 

As delivery apps popularized, restaurants were increasingly pressured to partner with them. “[Restaurant] owners were sold the idea that they’d reach customers only the apps had access to,” said Deepti Sharma, founder and CEO of FoodtoEat, a corporate catering company focused on minority-owned vendors. “Sales representatives aggressively approach local businesses, saying if you don’t partner with me and pay up to 30% fees, then you’re out of the game.”

Along with Los Angeles and San Francisco, New York City emerged as one of the largest and most competitive markets for third-party delivery services, concentrating approximately 65,000 gig workers hailing from Mexico, Central America, South Asia, China, and West Africa. Because of their classification as independent contractors, gig workers for tech companies such as DoorDash, GrubHub, and UberEats have long been excluded from essential rights, including hazard pay, minimum wage, healthcare insurance, and means to dispute wage theft, wrongful termination, and algorithmic discrepancies. While New York enacted some labor protections for ride-hailing app drivers in recent years, delivery workers didn’t benefit from this legislation. 

As multiple tech firms enlist low-wage “independent contractors” for up to 15-hour shifts to maximize profits, the handful of companies now dominating the highly saturated e-delivery market have set weak labor standards as the norm in this relatively new industry. “Classifying couriers as independent contractors is a win-win,” said Len Sherman, Executive in Residence and Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School. “It’s simple math, it’s cheaper to exploit workers without benefits or any kind of job guarantees.”

DoorDash has emerged as the biggest player of them all; the San Francisco-based firm holds nearly 60% of the American market. Last year, it became the latest gig company to join Wall Street, soaring in its public market debut. “Any company that raises such a tremendous amount of capital and then goes public as successfully as DoorDash did, tends to have a magnetic personality that makes shareholders only too happy to place billions into their trust,” said Sherman. 

Not limited to investors, the company’s alluring message sought to capture restaurant vendors and potential delivery workers alike. Founder and CEO Tony Xu has repeatedly told customers why he started DoorDash in 2013 — to help small businesses grow, and give company drivers, or “Dashers,” the chance to become their own boss. 

Ajche, like many others, looked forward to a “gig” that promised freedom, flexibility, and fast cash. By 2021, three years into his career as a “Dasher,” Ajche would spend around 50 hours a week hopped on his bike, rarely breaking over a $400 wage. “You stay on the streets for hours, waiting for the app to need you,” he recounted on his first day back after his injury back in 2020. “They give you what they want, when they want, and it’s never enough.”

“It was like no one saw us.”

For nearly a decade, the story of food delivery apps in New York City has been one of rising opportunities for companies and shrinking benefits for the throngs of migrant workers powering them. During the pandemic, tech firms’ soaring profits would ultimately clash with drivers’ deteriorating working conditions.

New York’s use of app delivery services rose dramatically as rising infections prompted a series of closures, lockdowns, and mandates in a city that would become the global epicenter of Covid-19 infections by the spring of 2020. An analysis by Deutsche Bank revealed that DoorDash, the largest player in the US delivery app market, had drivers making 44% more deliveries per hour at the height of spring lockdowns compared with 2018, and the city soon classified app couriers as essential workers.  

However, as the city growingly relied on migrant-powered delivery to sustain itself, conditions for these gig workers became ever-more difficult, precarious, and unsafe. Concomitantly, app-based couriers, or as many Mexican and Central American workers self-identify, “deliveristas,” were also highly invisibilized as an essential workforce. 

“It was like no one saw us,” said Ajche. “We were biking all day, every day, and still, we were invisible. Restaurants wouldn’t even let us use the restroom, and if you got sick with Covid, it was no one’s problem but yours.” 

Anonymous driver. Photo by Sammy Escalante.

The Birth of “Deliveristas Unidos.”

As delivery platform demand skyrocketed during the pandemic, tens of thousands of workers across New York joined apps like DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub, and Postmates. UberEats alone signed approximately 30,000 new couriers in March and April of 2020 in New York, marking a trend of app-based drivers far outnumbering delivery workers employed directly by restaurants.

After months of heightened calamities during the pandemic, including a virus that devastated New York’s migrant communities of color, continual issues of underpayment and non-payment across apps, and dramatic surges in electric bike theft and traffic deaths, workers banded together over the exploitative and perilous nature of app-based delivery labor. Ajche and a small group of K’iche’ Mayans began talking to other drivers, mainly indigenous men from Mexico’s Central and Southwestern states. 

After multiple conversations about their experiences and the abuses they detected, Ajche and others created a Facebook group called “Los Deliveristas Unidos.” Coordinating and messaging with other Facebook groups such as “Aztecas En Dos Ruedas” and “El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana,” Deliveristas Unidos started planning a protest that would take place in late 2020 to, according to Ajche, “make New York see us.” 

Donning flags from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Honduras, and carrying signs demanding security and justice, delivery workers honked in favor of a living wage and basic protections on October 15, 2020. Over six hundred couriers biked down Broadway to City Hall, denouncing workplace abuse and wage theft.

In late 2020, hundreds of drivers took to the streets for the first time to protest working conditions. Photo courtesy of Workers Justice Project. @Sol Aramendi.

“It was the first time I realized we could all be part of the same team,” said Jonán Huerta, a 34-year-old Zapotec driver from Mexico City and co-founding member of Deliveristas Unidos. Huerta had been working for delivery apps for over four years, and said it soon became clear that being an “essential worker” didn’t mean protection during the health crisis. “Pandemic or no pandemic, all the apps care about is that the food is there in 15 minutes. Everything else is your problem.”

In the months leading up to the protest, Deliveristas Unidos had been working with Workers Justice Project (WJP), a Brooklyn-based worker center and community organization. “These workers had been invisible for so long,” said WJP Executive Director Ligia Guallpa. “But they’re everywhere, doing very hard work to feed New Yorkers.” After hearing countless stories of workers relieving themselves in water bottles, chasing after stolen bikes, holding street vigils for couriers killed in traffic accidents, and getting sick without money for a Covid-19 test, Guallpa, the daughter of a former day laborer, decided to help them organize. “They had been silent, but the pandemic made it impossible not to speak out anymore.”

Workers like Ajche and Huerta fought to unite a fragmented, reluctant, and vulnerable workforce around the idea that they deserved better from delivery apps. Many workers and advocates knew it wouldn’t be an easy sell for a largely undocumented population scared of deportation and firings. “It’s like a fight between David and Goliath.” Ajche said. “We’re nothing compared to these billion-dollar companies.” Apps have long had an upper hand over workers seeking to organize — they can just deactivate their accounts, an action allowed by drivers’ “independent contractor” designation. “We’re not employees, so they just delete us and it’s like we never existed,” said Huerta.

Photo courtesy of Workers Justice Project. @Sol Aramendi.

At the break of 2021, Deliveristas Unidos membership grew, and with it, the size and frequency of protests and demonstrations. In April 2021, thousands of app couriers biked through Manhattan demanding access to restaurant restrooms, free PPE, weight and distance limits for deliveries, longer windows for orders, transparency over ratings and wages, and ways to communicate with the company to appeal wrongful terminations and tip discrepancies.

Huerta and Ajche said that despite the thousands in attendance to Deliveristas Unidos protests through 2021, one of the biggest challenges for delivery workers remained to explain to advocates, legislators, and consumers how the exploitations that they kept denouncing were exacerbated during the pandemic, but deeply entrenched in the basic functioning of delivery apps from their inception. “Through customized algorithms, companies purposely obstruct access to the app, and make it harder for workers to verify their earnings and prioritize their safety,” said Guallpa, who soon realized that successful organizing would require detailed examinations of how companies managed their largely migrant workforces. 

Thousands of delivery bikers protest in Manhattan during the spring of 2021. Photos by Sammy Escalante.  

“This win was fought and earned in the streets.”

After several months of grassroots organizing, Deliveristas Unidos finally saw the enactment of essential protections for gig workers long left unprotected, including during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was a very long ride,” said Ajche. “And none of these new laws were obvious at first to anyone but us.” 

On September 23, 2021, New York City Council passed a landmark slate of bills to improve working conditions for app couriers. The six-bill package included protections for workers’ tips and wages, minimum payments per delivery to be determined later this year, distance limits, and the right to use restaurant restrooms, representing a remarkable victory for migrant-led labor organizing. 

For over a year, Central American and Mexican app gig workers mobilized other migrant couriers to organize around these newly enacted protections, all of which emerged directly from Deliveristas Unidos’ demands. “We made history,” Ajche said proudly. “These new rights we have, they only existed in the cardboard signs we made, in the chants that we shouted in our protests, in our group chats. They went from being our demands to actual city law.”  

“These workers had been invisibilized for so long, but they’re everywhere, doing very important work. They feed this city,” recounted Guallpa. “This recent win was fought and earned in the streets, and it came from these workers’ willingness to open up about what companies were doing to them.”

Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), who sponsored a bill to fine restaurants who refuse to make their bathrooms available to couriers, pointed to grassroots campaigns as the main driver of this local legislative package. “These bills are a testament to the organizing power and determination of our city’s delivery workers.”

Essential but Unprotected

In collaboration with the Worker Institute at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Workers Justice Project released “Essential but Unprotected: App-based Couriers in New York City,” a survey conducted during the spring and fall of 2021 to shed light on drivers’ daily struggles. 

The report included a study of 500 app-based couriers across New York City, workers’ focus groups, and individual interviews. By analyzing how location-based platforms match drivers with consumers on demand, the report revealed how little control drivers had over their labor and safety, as well as just how low their wages had been. Earnings for delivery workers amounted to $7.87 per hour according to the study, with fluctuating tips representing up to 45% of their average pay. Even with tips, drivers’ average $12.21 salary stood well below New York’s $15 minimum wage. 

In contrast to delivery companies’ repeated claims that most couriers worked part-time to earn extra cash, around two-thirds of respondents for the Worker Institute’s survey reported working at least six days a week, and 85% said delivery was their main and only job. “This is all we do,” said Luis, a K’iche’ Mayan Guatemalan driver who delivers for DoorDash. “And it doesn’t pay well at all. No matter how many hours you work, or how fast you are with orders, the money’s never enough.” 

As New York City now holds public hearings over the new compensation scale for delivery app workers, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) recently proposed $23.82 hourly minimum payments plus tips. As proposed, minimum payments would start at $17.87 on January 2023, and increase to $23.82 by April 1, 2025. According to city officials, this amount considers drivers’ operating costs, which delivery apps have long ignored by having drivers incur the full cost of their electric bikes, insulated bags, helmets, and other equipment. 

The Cornell-WJP survey also found that as a largely mobile workforce managed virtually by tech companies, delivery bikers considered wage theft one of their biggest challenges. Over 40% of workers reported not receiving their tips and/or receiving partial payments for their shifts. Besides stolen wages, workers expressed concerns about rampant electric bike theft and traffic accidents. Nearly half of the surveyed drivers reported having been in traffic accidents or crashes while doing a delivery, and 54% reported having experienced bike theft and physical assaults. All reported having received no assistance or compensation from their employers. Beyond their victory, Deliveristas Unidos continues to confront the city with the physical dangers that couriers face for low wages. Braving hazardous weather and menacing streets, at least 25 delivery workers have been killed due to traffic accidents and street violence since the start of 2020. In 2020 alone, delivery workers accounted for nearly 50%of New York City cyclist fatalities. The list of deaths includes 29-year-old Francisco Villalva Vitinio, who was fatally shot in East Harlem during an attempted bike theft, and 31-year-old Salvador Navarrete-Flores, who crashed into an illegally parked truck in the Upper East Side. 

Memorial for Francisco Villalva Vitinio. Photo courtesy of Workers Justice Project. 

“These laws mean a lot, and they’re a great start,” said Ajche. “But there’s so much left to do. We’re not safe, and the worst thing is that when someone steals our bikes, they’re also taking our chance to work.”

In addition to physical danger, many couriers have seen their approximate $3,500 investment in electric bikes and batteries disappear in a few seconds when robbed. Despite rising thefts and assaults against drivers, tech companies provide no protection or relief, rendering electric bikes an expensive, uninsured, and even dangerous working tool. 

None of the recent bills passed by City Council addressed bike theft, which remains a substantial threat to couriers. “We go up and down buildings, we go into lobbies. We can’t have the bike on us all the time,” lamented Huerta. “They use bolt cutters for our locks, they punch us, they point guns at us. How do you fight that?”

Anonymous delivery worker out in the rain. Photo by Sammy Escalante. 

Tech Delivery’s Bet on Disposable Labor

Introduced by Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), minimum payments for deliveristas echo wage protections already in place for New York’s ride-hailing app drivers. However, the scope of city legislation remains highly constrained by couriers and drivers’ shared status as independent contractors, which tech firms have fought hard to maintain. 

In November 2020, companies including DoorDash and Uber poured over $200 million into “Proposition 22,” California’s most expensive ballot initiative campaign. Firms successfully ensured permanent exemptions from reclassifying their drivers as employees. 

Back in 2021, a controversial New York state legislation proposal set to unionize app couriers collapsed after Deliveristas Unidos, labor advocates, and several legislators denounced built-in restrictions reminiscent of Proposition 22. The now-defunct bill, lobbied by delivery companies, would have permanently truncated the possibility of reclassifying gig workers as employees, besides preventing drivers from most union activities and stripping them of various state and local labor protections. 

“These workers have continually been denied basic rights. They’ve been kept as disposable labor,” lamented Guallpa. “These legislative protections will give deliveristas more control over their labor and their livelihood. It’s the least that any worker deserves.” 

Delivery platforms expressed support for some of City Council’s new laws. DoorDash spokesperson Campbell Mathews assured that the company already breaks down estimated payments and tips, and that it supports expanded restroom access. A GrubHub representative said the legislation aligns with standards that the platform “has always strived to provide to its drivers.”

However, back in 2019, a New York Times investigation revealed that DoorDash subsidized drivers’ payments with tips, which ultimately forced the company to modify some of its policies. Additionally, over 40% of 500 delivery workers surveyed by Cornell and WJP reported underpayment and tip discrepancies as recurring issues across apps.

Those who pushed for the City Council package said that they hope it sets a precedent to regulate tech companies profiting off gig workers. “I hope that this package of oversight legislation allows for not just better-educated consumer choice, but also a more transparent compensation process for delivery workers,” said Council Member Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan), who sponsored a bill mandating delivery apps to disclose a clear breakdown of the percentage of tips workers receive from customers and how their pay is calculated. 

As McDonalds, CVS, Shake Shack, and other large corporations have paired up with DoorDash and UberEats, who together capture over 85% of food e-delivery sales in the US, app delivery has significantly expanded to grocery, convenience, liquor, pet, and drug stores. Hopeful to cater to larger chains and raise order sizes, companies such as DoorDash have installed multi-sited orders, allowing customers to add dessert, alcohol, and convenience items from other “close-by stores” to their restaurant orders.

“Convergence means that these apps are making it easier for us to have more of our occasions and more of our shopping needs met through one ecosystem,” said consultant Vishwa Chandra on the McKinsey on Start-ups podcast. For drivers, this convergence lauded by corporate analysts has meant carrying heavier packages, amassing different products from different stores, and running against a clock that doesn’t account for their multiple stops – all for the same low wage. 

App bikers are continually expected to deliver excessively large and heavy orders. Photo by anonymous driver.

DoorDash and UberEats representatives said that the company tries to accommodate riders with “bike-friendly orders”, but couriers’ amply documented experiences suggest quite the contrary. “They treat us like cars,” said José, a Zapotec Mexican driver who delivers for UberEats and DoorDash. 

Manuel, an indigenous Salvadoran courier for DoorDash, said that over the past six months he’s delivered 30-pound dog food bags, large stacks of toilet paper, multiple bags of groceries, and cases of wine and bottled water. “It’s really tough to balance my bike when I carry more than I should. In a city like this, with so many cars near you, a veer in the wrong direction can cost me my life.” 

Dependent Contractors

To service large corporations across a densely populated area, delivery apps employ fleets of independent contractors, who, in theory, can work for multiple employers and customize their schedules. “Drivers consistently tell us that they use our platform because it gives them the ability to supplement their income and control when, where, and how they work,” said DoorDash spokesperson Mathews. 

While delivery companies argue that workers determine their schedules and maximize their revenues by working for multiple apps, drivers have denounced being managed by algorithms designed to enhance deliveries at their expense. Algorithmic incentives and punishments constrain couriers’ ability to switch employers despite their status as independent contractors, as well as take breaks during their workday. 

“We’re dependent contractors. Apps make sure that we work as their loyal employees,” recounted DoorDash courier Luis. “We can’t work for many apps at the same time, we have to constantly prove ourselves to every app if we actually want to get work.”     

Couriers have denounced not being able to simultaneously work for two or more apps due to strict company policies. UberEats uses a quest system that incentivizes staying on the app for the whole day or week, while DoorDash and GrubHub use a shift system that prevents workers from pausing deliveries for more than 30 mins. Exiting the app or getting “expelled” from a shift affects internal ratings negatively, which in turn reduces workers’ ability to sign up for future shifts and can ultimately result in deactivation. 

“The apps use the ratings to enforce all of these unwritten rules,” said Tony, a K’iche’ Mayan Guatemalan DoorDash courier. “It’s like ‘sure, you can switch apps, you can choose the orders that you want, because you’re independent, but it will ruin your ratings.’ And the thing about lower ratings is that they always, always mean less work.” 

DoorDash’s internal metrics for drivers are broken into four categories: 1) clients’ ratings, on a scale of 1 to 5; 2) acceptance rate of orders; 3) completion rate; and 4) on-time or early delivery rate. Two of these metrics, “acceptance rate” and “on-time/early delivery rate” illustrate delivery apps’ built-in dependencies for drivers, linking various aspects of their performance to future access to work. 

By collecting drivers’ data and processing it through the technology that awards shifts and orders, delivery platforms remain in control, signaling “expectations” unrelated to customer service but effective at extracting full-time employment obligations from independent contractors. On-time rates, for example, push drivers to deliver orders under artificially low windows to maintain regular access to the app. 

“The platforms run the clock, and it’s never a realistic clock,” said Tony, “The apps punish you for taking longer to deliver an order, but the timetables they set are always off.” While no minimum rate has been disclosed for on-time ratings, DoorDash’s blog warns drivers that “repeated lateness may result in deactivation.” 

Contrary to DoorDash assurances that the company excludes low on-time ratings that “involve factors that aren’t directly related to drivers or the quality of their service, such as “long wait times at restaurants or an unforeseen traffic jam,” drivers showed how their on-time ratings constantly drop due to precisely traffic and delays in restaurants through digital records. 

DoorDash’s internal ratings for drivers and requirements to be a Top Dasher. Graphic by Marta Biino.

On his way back to Manhattan from Queens during a fall 2021 shift, Tony had to cross Queensboro Bridge, which was closed due to repairs. According to digital records, DoorDash eventually gave Tony seven more minutes for a traffic delay that added twenty minutes to his trip, making the courier automatically late. Tony’s apprehension about a “messed up shift” the next day foregrounded the close ties between seemingly inconsequential internal ratings and workers’ rights to future wages.

Acceptance rates operated under a very similar logic to on-time ratings, leaving many drivers with decreased access to work and lower wages. Before food delivery apps emerged a decade ago, most delivery workers were directly employed by restaurants, which established delivery zones to ensure no customer faced excessively long waits for their food. With a large workforce, delivery apps challenged this model, and by gamifying working conditions, they found ways to push drivers to accept orders farther and farther away. 

DoorDash and UberEats representatives said that it would be “really hard to maintain the same quality of service for merchants and customers” if drivers weren’t “encouraged” to accept more orders. “The goal for these companies is to be able to keep deliveristas as independent contractors because it’s cheaper,” said Guallpa. “And at the same time, to use the technology that they fully control to make sure that these workers are out in the streets full-time, extracting as much of their labor as possible.” 

A DoorDash representative said that since there is no minimum acceptance rate, drivers are “free to decline any number of orders without negative consequences.” However, digital record analysis illustrated that orders several miles away continually show up on drivers’ screens, and that rejecting several orders ultimately lowers drivers’ acceptance rate, which in turn prevents them from becoming “Top Dashers,” a monthly membership program that rewards drivers who “accept and complete more orders.” 

Top Dashers can select “Dash Now,” a feature allowing drivers to access the app for work without needing to book a shift in advance. “When things are slower, you will be prioritized for new orders,” read a blog on Top Dashers, which has since been taken down but preserved online by other drivers. “This means that if we have two nearby Dashers who can take on an order, we will break the tie in your favor.” Non-top Dashers, meaning any driver with an acceptance rate below 70%, not only have less access to the app, but ultimately lose orders because of an internal rating repeatedly portrayed as inconsequential by company executives. 

For couriers, delivering orders many miles away becomes less of a choice and more of an attempt to raise acceptance ratings. “Being a Top Dasher is great,” said Tony, who has made the program several times. “But the only way to be one is accepting virtually all orders, no questions asked. How far they are, how much money you’re making, how dangerous the neighborhood is, that can’t matter to you if you want to be a Top Dasher.”

Smaller delivery companies have tied internal ratings to work access even more directly. Relay, a New York City-based platform popular for making delivery cheaper than other third-party apps and subcontracting delivery services for apps like GrubHub and UberEats, has long employed a single 0-100 metric to evaluate its drivers at the end of their shifts, as opposed to most tech companies who break down their evaluation categories. 

Kept largely in the dark about evaluation criteria, drivers depend on this single performance evaluation to book their next shift, unsure about the factors behind high versus low ratings. Relay’s first-come, first-served shift booking system means delayed access to the app automatically translates into less work. 

“It’s always so nerve-wracking waiting to see my ratings at the end of the day,” recounted Carlos, a Zapotec courier from Mexico who delivers for Relay. “Not knowing exactly what can bring them up or down keeps you scared all the time.” Able to book up to 38 hours a week in Relay, drivers said delayed access to the app left them stuck with shifts at extremely slow hours. 

“Last week, I had ten hours to spare,” said Carlos, who explained that between bike batteries, less orders, and other expenses, he stands to lose more money than he makes from those shifts with little restaurant activity. “Relay knows it’s the best way to punish us. You can work, but not really. You can ride for hours, sure, but you’ll barely make any money. That’s why they do it like that.”

Relay has a first-come, first-served shift booking system for drivers. Couriers with lower daily ratings can’t access work for the next day. Graphic by Marta Biino.

While DoorDash grants its workers 40 seconds to either accept or reject any order, disclosing the overall distance, estimated minimum payment, and number of items, Relay reportedly only provided the name of the restaurant. “You don’t even know where you’re going until you’ve already accepted the order. They don’t tell you anything,” said Carlos. Digital record analysis revealed that Relay workers’ ratings decrease when they don’t accept an order, and when they fail to deliver a minimum of four orders per hour. 

Additionally, through 2021 Relay drivers collected the app’s menacing “behavioral guidelines” for upscale restaurants, which included “reminders” of “how expensive the food is,” instructions to “be very nice and quiet,” and explicit threats about “losing tips” and being permanently expelled from Relay if “anyone complains.” These guidelines, along with drivers’ knowledge that lower ratings will keep them off the app for longer periods, fueled profitable insecurities.

Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn) sponsored a bill requiring platforms to allow drivers to set maximum distances for orders, prohibiting internal punishments against workers for rejecting orders outside of their distance limitations. 

Brannan, who also introduced a bill mandating free insulated bags for drivers, highlighted that the new distance limits law came directly from workers. “I’ve been proud to work alongside drivers who told us about their actual problems, not the issues legislators or companies decide are important,” he said. “Allowing us to set our own limits is everything,” celebrated Tony. “It finally means not having to accept every order. It means freedom.” 

Despite City Council’s sweeping legislation last fall, DoorDash’s “Top Dasher” continues to operate, masked as a non-discriminatory “rewards” program while keeping its 70% acceptance requirements. Drivers have reported still receiving notifications for orders outside of the distance limits they set and lower ratings for not accepting nearly all orders. 

A National Movement?

On January 23 2022, dozens of delivery workers gathered around Times Square alongside activists and representatives to commemorate the initial rollout of new labor protections, drawing high-profile allies Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-The Bronx/Queens) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York). While cheerful, members of Deliveristas Unidos said that outreach remains their top priority to inform more workers of their new rights. 

Besides a subsequent series of street coffee breaks across New York City to educate workers about the new laws and safety on the streets, Deliveristas Unidos’ Facebook Live seminars gathered thousands of views online. “We’re doing everything we can to let deliveristas know about our new rights,” said Ajche. “Change is always scary and if drivers don’t think they can confidently ask for the restroom or a breakdown of their income, these laws will only exist in theory.”

“know-your-rights” resource page in English, Spanish, Bangla, and Chinese is now live on DCWP’s website, and workers are now able to file complaints about apps that don’t provide required payment disclosures or restaurants that don’t provide bathroom access.

While Representative Ocasio-Cortez amplified couriers’ recent organizing victory on social media and Senator Chuck Schumer steered federal infrastructure funds to build rest and charging hubs for New York City’s delivery workers, larger questions about gig workers’ overall employment classification linger across the country. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Schumer pointed to how the recently passed local laws protecting delivery workers’ rights can potentially result in national waves. 

“We need to make sure that New York City is a counterpoint to what happened in California,” said AOC, referring to Proposition 22. “In California, big money and tech apps organized to make sure that workers got less than they need, that they weren’t recognized as legitimate workers.” The New York Representative congratulated Deliveristas Unidos for “showing there’s another way” to “stand up and organize for basic needs,” denouncing apps for extracting full-time employment obligations from independent contractors without basic benefits. “Everything changes when working people recognize how much power they have.” 

Calling delivery drivers “hard-working people who just want a better life” and a “model for the whole city,” Senator Schumer also celebrated the new legislation and emphasized the importance of educating the public about the needs of gig workers and grassroots organizations like Deliveristas Unidos. “The new laws that go into effect tomorrow to help protect our 65,000 delivery workers!,” Schumer tweeted after the rally. “Next we are working for hubs for delivery workers to charge bikes, rest, shelter from the cold!”

As these local reforms come into effect in 2022, Deliveristas Unidos said workers will keep fighting to ultimately obtain full employment protections. “All we’ve ever asked for is a fair chance to do our jobs and make a decent living,” said Ajche. “I only know one thing. Only together we can keep bringing about real change.”

[1] Smith, Robert C. Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; Batalova, Jeanne et al. “Central American Immigrants in the United States.” Migrationpolicy.org, 16 Sept. 2021, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-american-immigrants-united-states; Rivera-Batiz, Francisco L. “Newyorktitlan: a Socioeconomic Profile of Mexican New Yorkers.” Regional Labor Review, Spring 2004. https://www.hofstra.edu/pdf/CLD_RLR_s04_titlan.pdf.

Note: Names of some drivers have been changed due to fear of retaliation from the apps and/or migration status concerns. 

Martha Guerrero

Martha Guerrero is a doctoral student in History at Yale University. Her research broadly focuses on U.S. immigration restriction in the twentieth century. Guerrero is particularly invested in examining how federal policy since the late 1960s has disproportionately impacted Latin American and Caribbean low-wage unauthorized workers and asylum seekers, a research agenda sparked by her time as an undergraduate research fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. At Yale, she has broadened her understanding of the stakes of immigration federal reform, particularly through her work as a graduate fellow for the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), Elizabeth Hinton and Beverly Gage’s Workshop in Modern U.S. History, and Prof. Hinton’s Challenging Racism in the Law Clinic. Beyond Yale, Guerrero has strived to bridge past and present when it comes to the history of immigration. Besides publishing several public-facing pieces on immigration, Guerrero has assisted The Atlantic immigration correspondent Caitlin Dickerson with research on the long-term effects of deportation. This broader interest in connecting academic research and investigative journalism stems from Guerrero’s time at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. While completing the M.S. program under the sponsorship of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize Scholarship and the Jack R. Howard Fellowship in International Journalism, she reported on New York’s unauthorized migrant workers and their servicing of various consumer industries. Her reporting on the labor organizing of migrant app delivery workers was shortlisted for Columbia’s Louis Winnick Prize in 2021.

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