For years, Mariah Mitchell relied on working for delivery apps like Postmates and Uber Eats to help pay her bills, partly because she could choose to take breaks while hauling her kids to and from school.
But the Capitol Hill resident sometimes struggled to make ends meet, because the apps can pay as little as a couple of dollars per delivery. So the 42-year-old wound up working late nights and weekends, spending time on the road rather than with her daughters.
“It was very hard. I don’t even know how I did it,” she said. “I was basically dead every night, collapsing.”
That’s why Mitchell plans to take part in a campaign by the advocacy organization Working Washington that will call for legislation that would require delivery-app workers to be paid Seattle’s minimum wage, plus expenses.
People who work for the apps are classified as independent contractors, rather than employees, so they aren’t covered by Seattle’s $16.39-an-hour minimum wage for large companies.
Some app companies may oppose the “Pay Up” campaign, and mandating minimum pay for couriers could prove complicated. Even within the delivery-app world, there are various models, such as restaurant-delivery apps like Uber Eats, Caviar and Door Dash; grocery-delivery apps like Instacart; and everything-delivery apps like Postmates. Amazon has its own delivery-gig service called Amazon Flex.
Still, the campaign is likely to gain traction in Seattle. Working Washington is supported by labor unions with political clout and has won legislation at City Hall before. More and more people are joining the gig economy.
About 320,000 Washington residents now work as independent contractors, and 18% of them access all or most of their work via websites or apps, according to a recent study by the state Department of Commerce.
Working Washington last year boosted nationwide protests by Instacart and Door Dash workers who were angry about the companies docking tips from their base pay. The companies have revised their tipping policies, but new laws are “the real way to cement worker power,” Working Washington spokesman Sage Wilson said.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda signaled interest in more gig–worker legislation in September, hosting a discussion that included Pay Up advocates. Mayor Jenny Durkan also has met with advocates and in a statement praised the concept behind the new campaign.
“I’m grateful to Working Washington for their commitment,” the mayor said. “I believe that gig workers should earn the minimum wage, plus expenses, and have access to worker protections that would be standard in more traditional industries.”
The Pay Up proposal would be most similar to the 2018 law that guaranteed Seattle’s minimum wage for nannies and cleaners, including independent contractors. Durkan also has promised legislation that would guarantee minimum pay for Lyft and Uber drivers, pending a study due later this year.
“Seattle has really been a leader in making sure its labor standards cover workers who are usually left behind,” said Rebecca Smith, a gig-economy expert at the National Employment Law Project, noting companies use independent contractors to save money on wages and benefits. “Bypassing the question of whether workers are employees or contractors really shuts down the gaming.”
Postmates, Door Dash and Instacart didn’t respond to requests for comment. GrubHub declined to comment.
“We support efforts to establish a minimum earning standard … that also protects worker flexibility and independence,” Uber spokeswoman Stephanie Sedlak wrote in an email.
“A state-level approach would be the best way to set standards for drivers at the lowest cost to riders, eaters and restaurants,” she added, pointing to an industry-backed ballot measure in California that would guarantee drivers and couriers 120% of the minimum wage.
California passed a law last year requiring companies like Uber to use actual employees, and the industry’s ballot measure would exempt app-based drivers and couriers from that requirement.
“We’re proud to offer $15 an hour to all … employees across the U.S. This also applies to drivers who deliver for Amazon Flex,” Amazon spokeswoman Amelia McLear wrote in an email, claiming Seattle-area Flex drivers average more than $25 an hour (minus expenses).
Mitchell started working with Caviar and Postmates in 2015, using the apps to supplement income from a 9-to-5 job in Auburn. She was making money with the apps, so she took a part-time delivery job at a Capitol Hill restaurant and increased her gig work.
She would take her kids to school, then use the apps until 11 a.m., work her job until 3 p.m., take her kids home and head out again to make dinner deliveries, sometimes until 11 p.m. In theory, Mitchell was her own boss, working when she wanted to. In reality, she had to work almost all the time.
Mitchell’s routine crumbled last year when she lost her restaurant job. Then her SUV died during rush hour on Broadway. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'” she recalled.
Concerns about contract jobs are nothing new, said Trevor Peckham, a University of Washington public health Ph.D. candidate who studies working conditions. But the apps have brought more attention, he said. Gig workers have worse mental health and more injuries, according to a study Peckham led last year.
“The contractor-employee dichotomy is breaking down because we have so much tech-mediated work,” he said. “It’s a space where there isn’t much policy, so people are coming up with ideas to fill that vacuum.”
The basic idea behind the Pay Up campaign is simple. Workers should make enough to survive and should be provided with pay-calculation details for each delivery, Wilson said. Instacart workers make $7.66 an hour and Door Dash workers make $1.45 an hour, after expenses, according to Working Washington analyses.
The details could get knotty, however. For example, City Hall would need to decide when to apply a minimum-pay standard. When couriers are picking up or dropping off items, they clearly should be paid, Wilson said. The time that couriers spend waiting is more tricky.
Some apps allow their waiting workers to reject deliveries, while others limit that ability. The apps need to have couriers waiting, but the couriers sometimes use multiple apps at the same time.
“You shouldn’t get paid by three apps at once,” Wilson acknowledged.
Foes may warn about a Seattle pay law leading to higher prices for consumers and less work for couriers, said Margaret O’Mara, a UW historian who studies politics and tech. “These companies have the resources to push back and they’re going to,” she said.
The apps are popular because people like to order in their pajamas, “but I think consumers will be OK,” O’Mara said.
Seattle policymakers also may need to consider what a new law would mean for supermarkets and restaurants that do business through the apps.
Safeway, Fred Meyer and QFC didn’t reply to requests for comment. Brian Solazzi, who owns Humble Pie on Rainier Avenue South, said a quarter of his winter sales are made with apps.
“We use Postmates, Uber Eats, Caviar and Grubhub,” he said. “They take 25% (of each sale), but I tried to make deliveries myself and I couldn’t beat that.“
Extending Seattle’s minimum wage to couriers could cause the apps to charge Solazzi more, but gig workers deserve to make a living wage, he said. They visit Humble Pie regularly, and they’re not college students working for pocket money, he said.
“We know their names. This is their job,” Solazzi said.
When her SUV died, Mitchell “had to think fast.” She signed up for a ride-hailing app’s program that rents cars to drivers who complete a certain number of rides a week.
Eventually, she was able to buy an older car and start making some deliveries again. Her hustle continues.