When Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to stay home and take shelter from the downpour and flooding Wednesday night, one group of people continued to go out: food delivery workers, many of whom were motivated by incentives from delivery apps.
After a video of a courier walking his bike through murky waist-deep water to deliver a customer’s food sparked outrage, advocates for workers’ rights called on the city and delivery apps to increase minimum wages and strengthen safety protections.
“The mayor is saying, ‘Go home.’ But the apps are giving economic incentives to the workers. ‘No, stay out, stay out,’” said Hildalyn Colón, director of policy for Los Deliveristas Unidos, a food delivery workers’ rights group in the city.
Food delivery companies offer extra money when demand is high or during inclement weather, leading some couriers to risk their safety for the promise of potentially higher wages. Summer is also slow season in the delivery business, so many workers jump at the chance to earn more even in dangerous conditions.
But on Wednesday night, many couriers barely made enough money to justify the hours spent toiling in the floods, said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of Workers Justice Project. Some Grubhub workers told her they made as little as $2 extra per delivery, she said.
For the delivery service Relay, which enables restaurants to have food delivered through any delivery app, workers must complete at least 90 percent of their scheduled deliveries in order to be paid at all, Ms. Colón said.
“That’s why you see these workers in the middle of the moving water holding a bag, trying to hold it together,” Ms. Colón said. A Relay representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Workers fear retaliation from the companies if they chose to turn down deliveries or sign off the app to go home, Ms. Guallpa said. Without the legal protections of full-time employment, there is little to keep them from getting lower ratings or getting deactivated by the apps if they decline deliveries, she said.
“Workers were surprised to see companies were not providing incentives to go home, and there was no communication that no retaliation would happen if they opt not to take those deliveries,” Ms. Guallpa said.
A DoorDash spokeswoman, Campbell Millum, said in a statement that while some workers may have been offered incentive bonuses Wednesday night, the company now regrets having pressured them to keep working.
“Although we were able to pause delivery in some parts of the city as the flash flooding occurred, we should have acted more quickly and comprehensively to suspend ordering, turn off incentives to get Dashers on the roads, and communicate with all of our stakeholders,” she said, adding that the company was “putting in place controls to do better going forward.”
A Grubhub spokesman said driver pay per order increased by a “double digit percentage” Wednesday night, and that drivers would not be penalized for turning orders down. Deliveries were also paused in parts of New York Wednesday night, he said, though he would not give details.
Adding to the challenges delivery workers faced were equipment failures. One worker who lives in the Bronx had to spend all the money he earned that night fixing water damage to his electric scooter, Ms. Guallpa said.
Los Deliveristas and the Workers Justice Project hope to push a legislative package of worker protections through the City Council later this year.
“People asked, ‘Why did they risk their life?’ This is the way they make their living,” Ms. Colón said. “When they offer you $2, for them, it’s like a lifeline.”