My Frantic Life as a Cab-Dodging, Tip-Chasing Food App Deliveryman

[Update: DoorDash, the nation’s greatest on-demand meals supply app, is altering its tipping mannequin.]

I had simply began my lunch shift when the telephone pinged: Uber Eats, pickup at Cocina del Sur on West 38th Street in Manhattan, 5 blocks away. Great! I pedaled down West 40th into congealing crosstown site visitors.

Seconds later my telephone ponged — completely different sound. Postmates, one other supply app: Pick up two orders at Shake Shack on Broadway and 36th?

I needed to determine: Take on three orders without delay and danger falling behind? Stick with Uber Eats, which was working a $10 bonus for doing six deliveries by 1:30, or strive for a Postmates bonus?

Information was restricted. The Uber Eats app doesn’t let you know the place the supply goes till you choose it up. I couldn’t know what the Postmates job would pay.

The Postmates clock ticked down — you’ve seconds to simply accept or decline an order. I used to be threading my method round lurching honking vehicles and oblivious texting pedestrians and expecting cops and looking out down on the telephone mounted on my handlebars and calculating supply occasions.

I hit “Accept.”

The riders, when you’re tuned in to them, are in all places, gliding by stoically, often on electrical bikes, sporting their treasured cargo on their backs: the silent swarm of tens of 1000’s of employees for apps like Seamless and GrubHub and Uber Eats and Caviar and DoorDash and Postmates, crisscrossing town to gratify New Yorkers’ insatiable want for burgers and pad thai and hen tikka masala delivered in minutes.

For a few days this spring, I used to be certainly one of them. Not a good one, however a deliveryman however. I discovered up shut how the high-tech period of on-demand the whole lot is reworking a number of the lowest-tech, lowest-status, low-wage occupations — creating each new alternatives and new types of exploitation.

The riders are the street-level manifestation of an overturned business, as eating places are forced to become e-commerce businesses, outsourcing delivery to the apps who outsource it to a fleet of freelancers.

“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 at the University of Amsterdam who studied app riders in New York 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.” (His Platform Labor research project is also studying the impact of delivery platforms in Amsterdam and Berlin.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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