Seattle was the first city in the country to pass laws mandating premium pay and sick days for delivery-app drivers during the pandemic, and those laws are still intact a year later in a sector supercharged by the COVID-19 crisis.
The city believes the $2.50-per-trip premium-pay law has yielded millions of dollars for drivers who work on meal-delivery apps like DoorDash and on grocery-delivery apps like Instacart. Such companies have paid more than $600,000 to settle complaints probed by the city’s Office of Labor Standards.
But the current laws are set to expire after the pandemic ends, so Seattle leaders may soon consider permanent protections, including legislation requiring delivery apps to pay drivers the equivalent of the city’s $16-per-hour minimum wage, plus expenses. Because the drivers are classified as contractors, they’re somewhat more independent but lack employee rights and benefits.
A worker-advocacy organization that launched a lobbying campaign in early 2020 recently renewed that campaign, and a bill under consideration by the City Council would commit the council to addressing delivery-app pay by September.
Seattle already has passed pay standards for ride-hail drivers and for domestic workers. Now the delivery-app sector has become too consequential for City Hall to ignore, with pandemic job losses forcing more people into the gig economy and virus concerns making deliveries routine for many households.
COVID-19 raised awareness about the work, as delivery drivers pointed out how essential they had become. Meanwhile, the investor-backed app companies capitalized on stay-home orders and business boomed. DoorDash recently bought Caviar, and Uber, which operates Uber Eats, recently bought Postmates.
“This past year has given more leverage to app-based workers, and it’s given more power to the companies,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington expert on politics and the tech industry. “Everything has been amped up.”
Seattle’s pandemic protections say delivery-app companies must pay drivers an extra $2.50 each trip and must provide drivers with a paid sick day for each 30 days they work in the city. The council and Mayor Jenny Durkan said the laws would compensate drivers for COVID-19 risks, protective equipment and vehicle cleaning.
The premium pay has made a “significant difference,” said driver Jason Slawson, who praised the city’s enforcement work. When Slawson complained that DoorDash wasn’t crediting him for sick days accrued with Caviar, the labor standards office initiated an investigation.
“They took the ball and they ran with it,” said Slawson, 61.
To settle that case, DoorDash last month agreed to pay about $15,500 in backpay, damages, interest and penalties to 10 drivers, including Slawson, and said it would pay about $145,000 to nearly 900 other drivers who had worked for Caviar.
Inquiries last summer, when some drivers alleged they weren’t receiving premium pay from DoorDash and Postmates, led to settlements of about $111,000 and $250,000. The office also has secured settlements with Uber. Thousands of drivers have received backpay, demonstrating “just how many people are impacted” by the city’s protections, said Steven Marchese, the office’s director.
Raymond Evans also has received the COVID-19 premium pay. But a long-term solution is needed, said Evans, who’s supporting Working Washington’s “Pay Up” campaign in Seattle.
The 45-year-old said he recently drove 21 miles to make four Apple store deliveries and was paid only $35, including tips, mileage money, a bonus from Apple and premium pay for three Seattle drop-offs. The work took two hours, he said.
“It’s becoming a struggle. Everybody is at the beck and call of these corporations,” he said. “There should be a consensus in society that people deserve to be able to eat.”
There was a moment during the pandemic and last summer’s protests against racism when Evans sensed more customers waking up to his reality as a Black person and someone trying to make ends meet. The increased tipping and waves didn’t last long, he said.
“People are back in their comfort zones,” Evans said.
In 2019, Seattle’s council asked an advisory commission to study how to stop companies from classifying gig workers as contractors. President Biden’s labor secretary spoke out last month against that model.
But court challenges have yet to break the model and California voters last year approved an industry-backed initiative that cemented the status quo there, so cities like Seattle are exploring other approaches.
The bill now making its way through the council would require companies to provide their contractors with precontract terms and timely, itemized payments.
Those requirements could empower gig workers, to some extent. But Working Washington campaigners say low, inconsistent pay is the real problem.
So, Councilmember Lisa Herbold has added a section saying the council intends to ensure that such workers are paid Seattle’s minimum wage, while retaining their contractor status. It says the council will discuss the issue in July and August and then vote.
The message to the app companies is: “You need to start taking this seriously,” said Herbold, who recently met with lobbyists for DoorDash, Uber and Instacart.
Legislating gig work can be complicated. Seattle also could clash with the companies involved; Instacart sued over the city’s premium-pay law last year and the case is still active.
“I don’t want anything changed,” said Slawson, who sometimes makes $30 per hour on the apps. “But I may be an exceptional case. I may not be speaking for the average oppressed worker.”
Uttam Mukherjee would like to see the delivery-app workers who pick up meals at his Capitol Hill restaurant Spice Waala paid fairly. He also wants the city to make permanent its 15% COVID-19 cap on the commissions that delivery apps charge restaurants, and he isn’t sure how those laws would interact.
“We need the business (from the apps) to survive,” he said. “I don’t know what (a pay standard) would mean.”
DoorDash and Uber said they were glad to reach settlements with Seattle’s labor standards office but issued warnings about next steps.
“We welcome the opportunity to engage with City Council to discuss an earnings standard for delivery workers but caution that this is a complex issue,” DoorDash spokesperson Briana Megid said.
Harry Hartfield, an Uber spokesperson, echoed that. Seattle’s “ill-conceived” minimum-pay law for ride-hail drivers has contributed to price increases for passengers, he said.
Working Washington’s executive director, Rachel Lauter, pushed back. The organization’s campaign is backed by a number of community groups and unions.
“These workers are people who we’ve relied on during the pandemic,” she said. “Thinking about how much money these companies made and how little went to working people makes this even more important.”