By Elizabeth Abreu Plasencia , Nevin Cohen , Emilia Vignola , Sherry Baron , and Mustafa Hussein 
 Queens College  CUNY School of Public Health/ Urban Food Policy Institute  Queens College, Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment
As part of its ongoing effort to improve the working conditions and earnings of food delivery workers, particularly those employed by digital platform-based companies like Grubhub or Uber Eats, the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) held a public hearing on June 15, 2022 to learn first-hand about delivery workers’ lived experiences. DCWP is also surveying the city’s approximately 70,000 food delivery workers to measure how much they earn each day and their overall working conditions to inform policies to improve effective wages and their health and safety on the job.
This article, based on testimony presented at the hearing, explains the unique impacts of platform-based delivery work, which use algorithms to manage the work flow and reward or sanction workers, on worker health and safety. It discusses the steps that New York City has already taken to improve working conditions for food delivery workers. It then synthesizes some of the testimony about the experiences of working for a food delivery platform, highlighting several priority areas for DCWP as it considers new regulations of the sector.
Risks of Platform-Based Food Delivery
Delivery workers are vulnerable to health and safety risks as they cycle through city streets. Because those who work for digital platforms are classified as independent contractors, not employees, they lack protections like minimum wage guarantees or paid sick days afforded conventional workers. And the apps that allocate and manage the tasks assigned to delivery workers are designed to maximize profit, perhaps at the expense of worker health and safety. Algorithmic management adds even more uncertainty on top of an already precarious food delivery sector, as jobs are assigned using formulas to speed up the pace of work. Apps do not assure platform workers of continuous tasks, and this uncertainty can pressure platform delivery workers to accept even those jobs requiring excessive effort or undue risk to avoid unpaid down time. This especially affects delivery workers who use the platforms as their primary source of income, pushing them to work longer hours and/or take on more risks to make a decent wage. The pressures to deliver more food more quickly can lead to increased stress levels, sleep deprivation, and major work-life imbalance.
Though platform work can offer flexibility in schedules, which is positively associated with worker satisfaction and mental health, schedule variability and limited control over the work process can pose problems for those who are financially dependent on continuous work. Unlike a traditional job, where the responsibility of generating work falls on the owner or manager, platform workers are responsible for finding their own jobs, and the lack of a job or income guarantee forces delivery workers to work throughout the day to catch peak periods of demand, like lunch and dinner time.
Algorithms are also crafted to limit the ability of workers to engage in work customization, such as devising their own delivery routes or rejecting orders without being penalized. Studies have found that control over one’s work protects against the negative impacts of a high workload, so the limits to worker control imposed by the algorithms likely create additional health risks.
Algorithms can add yet another layer of stress by controlling the work pace. Speed of work is a major health and safety risk factor, as workers may adopt unsafe practices to meet delivery demands, to complete more orders and thereby earn more money, and to avoid negative consequences caused by delays, such as bad reviews or low tips from customers and/or any fines or penalties imposed by the app. Workers may speed on their bikes or cars, use their phones while driving, run red lights, and skip lunch and bathroom breaks, which could lead to worker fatigue, illness, and fatal accidents. This risk is increased during inclement weather, when more orders come in and delivery workers are encouraged to keep up the pace even in these less-safe conditions. A fast work pace can also lead workers to cut corners on health and safety precautions, such as by not wearing a helmet or face mask.
Platform-based workers must also provide their own bicycles and safety equipment (e.g., helmets), yet there are no standards for their quality or condition. If workers use substandard or damaged equipment, they can be at risk of injury or death. In the winter, the failure to wear weather-appropriate gloves, face masks, shoes, and other clothing can lead to hypothermia or frostbite. Yet the delivery platforms are not responsible for maintaining and inspecting delivery equipment or providing protective gear that meets quality standards, as conventional employers typically do.
Policies to Improve Food Delivery Working Conditions
In 2021, the City of New York enacted a series of local laws to address various issues facing app-based delivery workers:
Delivery workers must supply their own bicycles and helmets, but until recently also had to pay for the large, insulated bags used to carry food. Local Law 113 shifted the financial responsibility of acquiring this equipment from workers to third-party food delivery and courier services. This local law also requires DCWP to deny, suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew licenses of violators.
Choice of Gigs
The City addressed information asymmetry that benefits delivery platforms but often leaves workers worse for wear and at the whim of the algorithms through Local Laws 114 and 118. These laws enable app-based delivery workers to turn down, without penalty, trips they deem too far or that cross bridges and tunnels and to set limits on distances and routes for deliveries. It also requires the platforms to disclose, in multiple languages, a delivery gig’s pick-up address, estimated travel time and distance, the amount of gratuity paid by customers, and the amount paid for the gig.
Local Law 115 creates a standard for a fair wage by setting minimum per-trip payments (excluding tips) for third party food delivery and courier service workers. By January 1st, 2023, DCWP must establish a method for determining the minimum payments to a food delivery worker by a delivery platform based on research to measure workers’ expenses, the equipment used for these services, how many hours are worked, and the duration of each completed delivery. The minimum payments will be reassessed by DCWP yearly beginning February 1, 2024. Local Law 116 also requires platforms to pay workers at least weekly and forbids them from charging workers fees for wage payments.
Lived Experiences of Workers
The June 15th, 2022, DCWP hearing to learn about the experiences of food delivery workers was attended by members of several labor organizations that support platform-based delivery workers across the city: the NYC Food Delivery Movement/Movimiento de Repartidores; Los Deliveristas Unidos/Delivery Workers United; Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM); the International Alliance of Delivery Workers; and the United Delivery Workers Association (UDWA). Their testimony addressed the following issues:
A common theme was the incongruence between the amount of work being done by app-based workers and the compensation they receive. The delivery workers who testified put in what they described as excessive hours delivering food with minimal time off, but their paychecks only reflected a fraction of the time they are out on the streets.
This was the case of a member of the UDWA who testified that he works 12-hour shifts daily as his family’s primary breadwinner, but even after six years of app-based delivery work his income barely covers his living expenses. Another delivery worker reported living a similar reality, working seven 10-to-12-hour days a week, with little time to rest, but only earning between $100 and $150 for his efforts. He testified that this hectic work schedule for third-party delivery platforms has affected both his physical and mental health, leaving him with back pain and stress as he tries to juggle two platforms to maximize his earnings.
The testimony made clear that app-based delivery workers have become disillusioned with the principal claim made by platforms that initially drew them into this type of work. Platforms advertised that delivery workers could achieve self-determination by choosing not only their own working hours but also the locations of the deliveries they accept. After working for multiple platforms such as Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub, and Relay, often simultaneously, app-based delivery workers have realized that these applications are neither a reliable nor sustainable source of income.
Information Asymmetry and Control of Work
Many workers believe that the platforms work against them in the way they choose not to disclose relevant information and uphold the existing information asymmetry between platforms, their algorithms, and the workers. As expressed by a member of the organization Los Deliveristas Unidos/Delivery Workers United who works as an Uber Eats delivery worker, “We [app-based delivery workers] are competing to be assigned orders through an algorithm that is not transparent and fair,” forcing him and others to work through late nights, bad weather, and unsafe conditions to maximize their earnings. Platform companies withhold information such as the location, distance, and payment to be received for potential deliveries before a worker can choose to deny or accept a trip. Information asymmetry also exists in the platforms’ refusal to explain the confusing rules of their algorithmic management in calculating commissions and fees. Some punish workers who receive poor ratings by deactivating them from their platforms. Lack of information can often lead app-based delivery workers to sacrifice more hours on the job and risk accepting trips that are not economically beneficial or that are in dangerous locations.
Another issue raised by the delivery workers centered around assault, robbery, and accident-related safety risks that have left workers dead, injured, or unemployed for long periods without workers’ compensation or health benefits.
Workers testified that they face physical violence, have experienced a physical attack, have had equipment (e.g., vehicle, helmet, GPS, cellphone) stolen while on the job, and have had work accidents resulting in physical injuries to themselves and others, equipment damage, and even death of fellow workers. During his testimony, a delivery worker of the Deliveristas Unidos spoke of being assaulted and having his motorcycle stolen while making a trip for Uber Eats last Spring. He shared that the attack left him with physical trauma and a deep-seated fear for his well-being and anxiety over the state of his family. Despite being unable to work, as a non-salaried worker he has not received compensation from the platform throughout his recovery.
A similar picture was painted by a delivery worker for DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Relay, based in Astoria, Queens, who detailed the worrying reality of app-based delivery workers. This person shared that delivery workers risk their lives daily while on the job and that frequent traffic-related accidents and robberies create a significant financial strain that can prevent struggling workers from working for weeks or months at a time, juggling medical bills and digging into savings to reinvest thousands of dollars in damaged or stolen equipment.
This was another delivery worker’s experience after being involved in a car accident while on the job in January 2021 that required six months of rest, leaving his family of five without income. As an independent contractor for both DoorDash and Relay, this worker was uninsured and described having no other option but to pay his ambulance fees with money he had saved for the birth of his newborn. The frequency of these types of experiences have left platform workers afraid for their safety and that of other workers, and they attribute these incidents to the fast-paced algorithm that pushes them to take on as many deliveries as possible for earnings that they describe as amounting to less than half of the New York State minimum wage.
Racial and Gender Discrimination
Some delivery workers also shared incidents of discrimination while on the job. A Relay delivery worker and member of the NYC Food Delivery Movement/Movimiento de Repartidores explained that while on the job, he and other workers have faced various forms of harassment, such as having water thrown in his face and his bike pushed as he rode by pedestrians, which he attributed to the fact that he and his coworkers are Hispanic. This worker added that when robbed and physically assaulted, many app-based delivery workers have stopped reporting these instances altogether since they are often ignored by the police. Equally as disturbing was the harassment toward female app-based delivery workers while on the job that one worker, a mother of three children and a Relay delivery worker, described during her testimony, sharing that she has faced harassment from men who have approached her while on her bike and made inappropriate comments. Although she was only one of only two female delivery workers presenting at the hearing, she noted that her experience with harassment is shared by other female delivery workers.
Needed Health Research
The testimony presented at the June hearing illustrated the types of inequities and hazards faced by those who work for food delivery platforms. Yet despite the growth of platform-based food delivery, there has been limited research on the health effects of platform-based work among delivery workers. Most existing studies are based on small samples using qualitative methods. This small but growing body of literature suggests that platform-based delivery work, particularly due to the algorithms that control the work process, may adversely affect the health and wellbeing of workers, and these health effects may disproportionately harm certain populations of workers. The hearing testimony was consistent with the literature.
The research suggests that platform food delivery workers face high levels of work demands with little control over their work pace, a combination that has been shown to lead to both mental and physical health problems in other workers. As this segment of the labor force grows, it is imperative to measure the occupational safety and health challenges of platform-based work to inform future policies and practices that protect and prioritize worker health and safety. The lived experience of platform-based workers, detailed in testimony of the workers themselves, illustrates how algorithmic management affects work, and thus wages and working conditions. This qualitative data, combined with research on the specific mechanisms by which algorithmic management affects health, can inform policies to improve the health, safety, and effective wages of this segment of the workforce.