This is the third part in amNewYork Metro’s series “Still Racing to Deliver,” a follow-up to our five-part series exploring the proliferation of grocery delivery app services in New York City.
The success of any delivery business, no matter how large, popular or well funded it is, depends on its fleet of delivery workers. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers earn a living zipping around the city on electric bicycles, picking up and dropping off food orders.
Quick-commerce delivery apps promised they would treat their delivery workers differently. Up until they arrived on the scene, most delivery workers were contractors, or gig workers. They would sign up with DoorDash, or UberEats, or GrubHub — or, perhaps all three — and take work as it became available. There was no official hiring process or set schedule for any one deliverista, and many enjoyed the flexibility and freedom.
But gig work has plenty of downsides. With no formal contract or salary agreement, pay can be unpredictable, sick time nonexistent, and labor laws hard to enforce. Companies like Gorillas and JOKR chose to hire their delivery workers as full or part-time employees, promising regular hours, a guaranteed salary, benefits, and equipment like bikes and protective clothing.
It seemed like a solution to the most common delivery-worker woes, but not everyone was convinced.
“I think that is a false promise,” Hildalyn Colón Hernández, policy director at La Deliveristas Unidos, told amNY Metro last year. “You’re part-time, or you’re earning minimum wage. But the work that they do, they should be earning even more. Just the idea that they are employees doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with issues of disqualifications, non-transparency, tips that get stolen.”
New apps and legal grey areas
In 2021, the New York City Council voted to pass a package of bills that expanded and enhanced protections for delivery workers. But the legislation specifically targeted gig workers, not employees, so it seemed the grocery delivery apps would be exempt from the laws when they took effect last spring.
Even so, most of the apps were already ahead of the curve — offering pay at or above minimum wage, providing bikes and equipment, and guaranteeing their workers receive 100 percent of their tips.
What the venture capital-backed startups didn’t . was shutting down, and many of them did. Companies such as JOKR, 1520 and others, each boasting rapid expansion and hundreds of employees, closed suddenly.
Even those companies that made it through, like Gorillas and Getir, have been forced to cut their workforces.
According to data collected by the New York State Department of Labor, the number of people employed as “couriers and messengers” in New York City grew from 24,800 in to 35,800 from September to December 2021. That number dropped steadily through the first half of 2022, but has remained steady at about 23,000 from April to July.
Employees at grocery delivery apps are likely not protected under local laws like the Grocery Worker Retention Act, which requires the new owners of grocery stores to retain previous employees for at least 90 days.
“No one, Getir included, has been immune to the market forces at play: from global inflation and economic contraction, coupled with the geopolitical forces currently affecting Europe and the U.S., all of us in the delivery space have been faced with having to make difficult decisions this year,” said Langston Dugger, U.S Head of Operations at Getir.
Dugger declined to say how many employees Getir laid off. All of their employees, whether they’re full or part time, are W-2 salaried workers who make at least $17 per hour and are eligible for benefits after three months on the job, Dugger said.
Despite a tricky few years and prior cuts, Gorillas is making a steady recovery in the city, said Alex Gabriel, Head of External and Government Affairs at the company’s U.S. branch. It operates 18 dark stores in three boroughs and employs more than 400 delivery workers and store employees, he said.
“Despite ongoing uncertainty due to increasing consumer costs from inflation and supply chain constraints, NYC retail is rapidly growing back to pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “Just in the last couple of months, Gorillas opened seven new stores, employing more than 100 new roles to oversee and operate these locations. When launching a new store, Gorillas actively seeks to employ individuals from the community where the store is located, creating a stronger bond between our brand and the neighborhoods we serve.”
The company decided to shift its focus from rapid-fire growth to long-term sustainability after its fall 2021 funding round, Gabriel said in an email to amNY.
“The developments in the capital markets confirmed this strategy and proved that we needed to reinforce our company’s focus toward profitability,” he said. “As a part of our plan, we have precisely defined our next strategic steps and how we can succeed in reaching our ambitions. Part of this strategic plan required a round of layoffs for members of our team (primarily from our HQ).”
Getir delivery workers keep 100 percent of their tips, Dugger said, which a Getir driver confirmed separately to amNY Metro. Delivery workers working for Gorillas also keep all of their tips, an employee said, and Gabriel said all Gorillas employees — whether they work at corporate headquarters or at a dark store — are offered healthcare, paid vacation and sick pay.
Safety and new regulations for delivery workers
Adequate pay isn’t the only issue facing delivery workers of all kinds in New York City. Food delivery is a notoriously difficult and dangerous job, requiring delivery workers to cycle at all hours and in all kinds of weather.
Speeding cars, rain and snowstorms, and even assailants all pose a threat to delivery workers, and some critics said apps promising a full grocery order within 15 minutes would further endanger riders and pedestrians or other cyclists contending with speeding e-bikes. Nearly half of the city’s delivery workers have been involved in a crash, according to a joint study conducted by La Deliveristas Unidos and Cornell University.
“I, unfortunately, have the hard job to get the calls — 14 workers died last year. It is a very difficult challenge to explain to family members that they’re not coming home because of the high risk of what these workers confront,” Colón Hernández said at a June hearing held by the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.
Last fall, DoorDash, which ventured into the quick-delivery service with the launch of their first DashMart location in New York City in December, launched “SafeDash” in partnership with security company ADT. The program included a number of new in-app options so Dashers could quickly contact ADT or the police if they found themselves in an unsafe situation.
This year, DoorDash partnered with La Deliveristas Unidos to host a workshop on workers’ rights and protections. The event was canceled at the last minute, reported news outlet The City, as members of the Deliveristas criticized the company’s practices and treatment of their workers.
In February, as lawmakers prepared to introduce legislation regulating quick-commerce grocery delivery apps in the New York City Council, Gorillas dropped their 15-minute promise, and their riders are required to take part in safety courses offered by the state and by the company before they can make deliveries, Gabriel told amNY Metro.
“We want to ensure that our riders remain safe in the streets and don’t feel any pressure to put speed over safety,” Gabriel said. “That’s why our employees are not remunerated based on the speed of the deliveries and are instructed to put their safety over the goal of a ‘within minutes’ delivery.”
“Speed of work is a major health and safety risk factor: To meet delivery demands, workers have to adapt unsafe practices like speeding, using their phones while driving, running red lights, skipping lunch breaks and bathroom breaks, which can lead to worker fatigue, illness and fatal accidents,” said Eman Faris, Director of Advocacy at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, at the June DCWP hearing.
Those risks are especially prevalent for gig workers who do not have consistent work or pay, Faris said. Salaried employees at Getir and Gorillas are guaranteed regular pay and hours regardless of order demand.
Getir outfits their delivery workers with purple and yellow equipment including jackets, pants, gloves and helmets, Dugger said, and their electric bicycles and scooters are speed-restricted. There is no penalty for a delayed delivery, he told amNY.
“Our business model and technology is what drives our speed: facilitating our logistics to make rapid delivery possible,” he said. “We do not promise exact delivery times and never push our delivery riders for faster deliveries. Getir also has a dedicated safety team providing comprehensive safety training before riders ever get on a bike or scooter.”
Each Getir warehouse also has a break room and a bathroom for employees, Dugger said. Among the laws passed by the council this year is a bill mandating restaurants allow delivery workers to use their restrooms, since people delivering for DoorDash or GrubHub don’t have central locations to return to with facilities to use.
Editor’s note: A version of this story originally ran in amNY. Click here to see the original story.