NEW YORK — Since the beginning of the pandemic, food delivery workers on bikes have become even more ubiquitous features of the New York City streetscape, earning low wages and often braving horrendous weather, hazardous streets and the threat of robbery to bring people their takeout orders at all hours of the day.
On Thursday, the city became the first in the nation to take aggressive steps to improve those employees’ working conditions, approving a groundbreaking package of legislation that will set minimum pay and address the plight of couriers employed by app-based food delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats.
The legislation, which has the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, is the latest and most broad example of the city’s efforts to regulate the multibillion-dollar industry. While other cities have taken steps to restrict the food delivery apps, no city has gone as far as New York, which is home to the largest and most competitive food delivery market in the country.
The vote comes at a time when the food delivery industry has exploded, as restaurants have relied increasingly on delivery services to survive during the pandemic. The number of delivery workers, most of them immigrants, has risen to more than 80,000, according to the city, yet their working conditions remain difficult at best and horrendous at worst.
Those conditions captured the city’s attention a few weeks ago when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the city, and scenes of food delivery workers traversing flooded streets to deliver meals stirred outrage.
A survey of 500 app food delivery workers by the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Workers Justice Project found that 42% of workers had experienced being underpaid or not paid at all. Nearly half said they had crashed while delivering food, and 75% of those said they used their own money to pay for their medical care; 54% reported being robbed, and 30% said they were assaulted during the robbery.
Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said that the package of legislation would give workers the “rights they deserve” and that he was optimistic it would spark a national movement to improve conditions for app-based delivery workers.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the large, multibillion-dollar corporations that are making a lot of money in New York City try to stop this,” Johnson said at a news conference before the vote. “My hope is that other cities will actually take action and other cities will join New York City in providing protections for delivery workers.”
The legislation prevents the food delivery apps and courier services from charging workers fees to receive their pay; makes the apps disclose their gratuity policies; prohibits the apps from charging delivery workers for insulated food bags, which can cost up to $50; and requires restaurant owners to make bathrooms available to delivery workers.
Under the legislation, delivery workers would also be able to set parameters on the trips they take without fear of retribution. Workers — who have been targeted by robbers intent on stealing their money or their e-bikes — would be able to determine the maximum distance they want to travel from a restaurant or specify that they are not willing to go over bridges to make a delivery, for example.
The package of bills, however, falls short in a variety of ways, representatives of the workers said. The delivery workers, for example, would still be classified as independent contractors who are ineligible for workers’ compensation or unemployment benefits.
Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute, called the protections passed Thursday the “floor” of what was necessary to provide “basic rights.”
The workers need the ability to negotiate work rules with their employers, she said, adding that the City Council has more work to do to improve conditions for them.
“My concern is that this gets presented as the solution,” Campos-Medina said in an interview. “The ability to use the bathroom is a basic human right.”
The use of food delivery apps soared as the pandemic shuttered the dining rooms of restaurants around the city. But for the mostly immigrant laborers tasked with delivering the meals, working conditions were as difficult as ever.
José Ramirez, who came to New York from Puebla, Mexico, has worked as a delivery worker in Manhattan for four years. He said he earns about $8 an hour before tips, which has required him to work more than 10 hours a day on most days to earn enough money to support himself.
Ramirez, a member of Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group that has been fighting for years for delivery worker protections, said restaurants have denied him bathroom access so frequently that he has resorted to calling his friends during his shift to use their bathrooms.
“People sometimes come up to me after I make their delivery and tell me they’re sorry they can’t tip me,” Ramirez said. “I feel happy I helped, but I’m not getting paid. I have to pay for my bike, my delivery backpack and my cellphone, so we need a dignified minimum pay.”
As demand for deliveries has soared, workers at food delivery startups across the country have been organizing efforts to demand better pay and conditions. Some cities in California and Washington state passed temporary measures to provide hazard pay for delivery and other essential workers because of the pandemic.
States like California and Massachusetts have also been engaged in protracted legal battles over which rights and protections should be given to gig workers.
Last year, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 22, a victory for companies like Uber and DoorDash that allowed them to continue treating drivers as independent contractors. The measure exempted the companies from a state labor law that would have forced them to employ drivers and pay for their health care and other benefits. As a concession to labor advocates, the initiative offered a wage floor and limited benefits to drivers.
But last month, after a lawsuit by a group of drivers and the Service Employees International Union, a California judge found the proposition unconstitutional and unenforceable. The companies have said they will appeal.
Chicago recently sued the food delivery apps, charging that they engage in deceptive practices. San Francisco, meanwhile, voted to place a permanent 15% cap on fees the apps charge restaurants, but Mayor London Breed has not signed the law, saying it “oversteps what is necessary for the public good.”
New York City is currently facing two lawsuits from the largest food delivery companies in the industry, which are seeking to eliminate rules that regulate how much the apps can charge restaurants and the information they must disclose.
Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan earlier this month arguing that a 15% cap on fees for online orders and 5% cap per order for other fees such as marketing was unconstitutional and would ultimately lead to higher prices for consumers and less profits for restaurants.
Restaurant owners say the companies sometimes charge them fees of up to 30% per order, which affects their already slim profit margins. But because the apps have come to dominate the food delivery market, the owners have said they have no choice but to list their restaurants on them.
DoorDash filed a separate lawsuit last week contesting another law passed by the City Council that would require the apps to share customer data such as their names, addresses, emails and telephone numbers with restaurants.
Although the new package of bills may also face court challenges, Grubhub officials said they supported the legislation.
“These bills are common-sense steps to support the delivery workers who work hard every day for New York’s restaurants and residents,” Grant Klinzman, a spokesperson for Grubhub, said in a statement. “Ensuring they receive a living wage and have access to restrooms isn’t just a good idea, it’s the right thing to do.”
In a statement, Campbell Millum, a spokesperson for DoorDash, said the company recognized the “unique challenges” facing delivery workers in New York City and had launched initiatives to improve safety and pay and expand access to bathrooms.
But the company is concerned that legislation allowing workers to set parameters on where and how they will make deliveries could have “unintended consequences,” she said, and cause worse service in “underserved areas.”
Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from Manhattan who sponsored the bathroom legislation, said she had heard stories from workers who had to wait hours to find a restroom they could use and from other workers who were asked to pay to use the bathroom at a restaurant.
“These are workers that have been disenfranchised for a long time. They come from historically marginalized and low-income areas of our city,” Rivera said. “It took a national and global pandemic and waist-deep floodwaters to bring attention to their plight.”
The legislation calls for the city to conduct a study to determine how much delivery workers should be paid. Currently, the workers’ pay is determined by whether they are working during peak hours, the amount of time in between trips, and the neighborhood where food is being picked up and delivered.
Hildalyn Colon, director of policy for Los Deliveristas Unidos, said the need to pass the bills became more urgent as the food delivery industry became a source of income for more workers, many of them immigrants who begin working just weeks after arriving in the country.
Manny Ramirez, 34, and his wife both work as delivery workers. He said there has been a long-standing, pressing need to improve working conditions.
“These bills are already affecting us and changing our lives, because these issues have come to the surface,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “This is just the beginning of things that are going to come.”