Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com.
During lockdown, people are relying more and more on app-based delivery services. While the early days of the crisis might have inspired some customers to tip extra and be particularly conscientious, at this point tips have leveled off, according to Megan, a Los Angeles-based freelance filmmaker who uses Postmates and other gig apps to carry her through periods when she’s short on work. When the virus hit, she returned to the apps, and was shocked at the decline in pay rates. “When I did my first few deliveries, I saw the amount that we were being paid, and I didn’t know it was possible for them to pay $2 and change for a delivery.”
Because of that, she’s joined an action this week, calling attention in particular to Postmates’ partnership with Chipotle by refusing all deliveries from the burrito chain. They’re calling it a #GuacOff, noting that their pay per delivery is the same as the chain charges for added guacamole. “$2.50 is not a wage. It is a guacamole upcharge,” Megan said. They’re asking customers to participate by not ordering from Chipotle from April 29–May 1. Their action coincides with other strikes by gig workers and Amazon warehouse workers.
Problems that the workers dealt with on an everyday basis, Megan noted, were exacerbated now. “We feel very expendable, but when it happens during a global pandemic that has killed 50,000 Americans, it hurts on a different level.”
Besides the lowered pay rate, she said, other things are more difficult now too. “It’s very hard to find bathrooms right now. So it sort of limits how long you can stay at work without going home,” she said, noting that delivery-only restaurants weren’t allowing drivers to use facilities. There’s also an increase in delivery requests to hospitals, she said, “and when delivering you might literally have to walk through lines of people lining up to be tested for COVID.”
This isn’t the first time Postmates has cut their rates, Megan added. The delivery rate used to be $4 as a base, and the company would adjust to make sure the drivers made at least that much. Then they lowered it to $3 per delivery. “Usually when they make these pay cuts, you only find out after you do a few jobs and then look at what they paid you in the app,” she said. “It’s not like you log on to the app and they announce any sort of new policies.”
Despite the lockdown, she said, it’s also not been very busy—but, again, because of the lack of communication from the company, she doesn’t know if that’s true across the board.
Sometimes I’ll get push alerts that there’s a high delivery volume, and then I’ll sign on, but I don’t get any delivery for three hours. So it’s kind of a mystery when you’re actually going to be able to work. I have no access to their data. I don’t know if it’s that fewer people are making deliveries or there are just way more drivers. From our perspective it’s always just a guessing game. For me personally it’s been a lot slower.
She also finds that Apple stores (yes, the Apple store has Postmates drivers deliver your computer supplies) and some other companies don’t provide customers with the option to tip, leaving the drivers short on money.
Every Apple order pays far less than minimum wage. And then there are some restaurants doing a similar thing where people will order through their website or through this other app called ChowNow. . . . ChowNow markets itself as a more restaurant-friendly app that takes a smaller commission, but the people we deliver to don’t even have the option of tipping. So we don’t even know when there’s a $0 tip if it’s because the person wants to tip $0 or because they didn’t have the opportunity to tip us.
Unlike Instacart, where workers can see the offered tip ahead of time (but some customers take advantage of the ability the app gives them to switch the tip after the fact, a practice workers call “tip baiting”), Postmates tipping, Megan said, is fully concealed from the driver. And then there’s “batch deliveries,” where multiple deliveries from the same merchant get added to the driver’s list. “You might get paid eighty cents for the second delivery even though the customer is paying the same amount for the delivery.”
Megan began thinking about organizing Postmates drivers after she’d been working on the apps for a little while. “I got curious about how they all worked and how they can get away with a lot of the stuff that they get away with,” she said. She found Working Washington, and got involved because, she said, they were “One of the few resources that are really doing data-driven, policy-driven work on our side.” In addition to striking herself, she is also putting together a video for the strike. “The circumstances seem to get crazier every year. I think that doing gig work can oftentimes create disenfranchisement. So it’s a way to combat that.”
Megan and the other workers are first and foremost asking for “a livable base pay. Right now Postmates is paying as little as $2 and change per order. We’re really living off the tips, which, especially when you have all the overhead that we have, it’s not a way to work. People end up losing money working.” They’re calling for a $15 an hour base pay after expenses, and then an additional $5 per order for pickup or $10 when they have to do the ordering at the restaurant as well.
Right now we’re really not compensated for our time. When we hit Shop For An Order or Order and Pay, we’re paid seven cents per minute and it’s capped at fifteen minutes. And if you want to get paid for anything beyond that fifteen minutes you have to open a ticket with Postmates. You go back and forth. The last time there was an error in my pay and I fought it—it was about $20—it involved two hours of phone calls and a twenty-seven-email chain.
She also wants them to provide protective equipment.
It’s been a real struggle to get masks. We can make our own mask, but most people can’t make their own hand sanitizer. We might be able to get our hands on a single set of gloves, but for gloves to be effective you’re supposed to change them every time you get in and out of your car. Otherwise you’re just cross contaminating everything. The hand sanitizer is especially an issue right now, because all the restaurants’ bathrooms are closed. So in addition to just not being able to use the bathroom we can’t wash our hands.
They are also calling for fourteen days’ sick pay. The company has said it is possible to get sick pay, but, Megan said, “The sick pay has not been transparent for anybody. There’s a lot of people who’ve gotten sick and not been able to get tested.”
The workers additionally are asking for the right to make no-contact deliveries—to protect themselves, but also, Megan noted, to protect their customers. “I do wonder if that’s how we’re going to get people to care about this,” she said, “because I know people are paying a lot more attention to frontline workers right now, because of our well-being but also because we interact with them.” At the moment, though, customers can choose whether it’s a no-contact drop-off. “Say we make a delivery, a batch order. We deliver to the first person and if they want a handoff, it’s additional exposure for the next person. Maybe the odds are low, but why wouldn’t you just make it mandatory?”
The strike is focused on Chipotle, she said, because Chipotle orders tend to be batch orders, meaning the drivers don’t get the full amount per delivery. But their frustration remains with Postmates as a whole.
They cut our pay when coronavirus was already on their radar and they’d already found out the hand-washing recommendation. It really feels like they’re aware that it’s a model that profits off of a time where a lot of people are desperate to pay bills. They know how many people are going to be flooding their app. So from the perspective of people who have been on the app it’s tough, because the number of orders keep going down and the pay has gone down from a previous level that I didn’t even think it was possible to go down from.
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.