Sunny blue skies usually bring a smile.
But the Las Vegas staple mocked Riley Elliot on Tuesday.
Seated in his slowly deteriorating 2012 Honda, Elliot decided to document a dark moment for a TikTok video. Through tears, he unleashed his frustrations as a food delivery driver struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A trick bag where gig economy companies can pay low wages if tips are part of an employee’s income, but customers don’t always tip.
“Like, how hard is it to throw us five bucks?” Elliot said at the end of the video after spending 45 minutes that afternoon making the delivery from a high-end eatery. According to Elliot, UberEats pays him $2.50 for his labor and the customer tipped him $1.50, but because the person refused to meet Elliot curbside for the delivery, he had to pay $3 for parking.
Elliot posted the clip to his TikTok account that, at the time, had nine followers. In all caps, he captioned it “tip your delivery folks!” and added multiple hashtags, including #ubereatsdriver and #helpme.
By Friday afternoon, Elliot was still crying, but received more than $40,000 in tips from strangers across the globe because of the video. The Sounders were among the donors, sending him $500 after the club’s social-media manager spotted Elliot wearing a Sounders jersey in the viral video.
The club’s donation prompted a spontaneous tip challenge where, according to Elliot, supporters for the Sounders, Los Angeles FC and Portland Timbers aimed to one-up each other in donations to Elliot’s Venmo and Cash App accounts.
“An enemy in the stands, but nothing but love everywhere else,” Elliot said of a message from a Timbers fan who sent $20 to his account.
Elliot was wearing the jersey of James Riley. The former Sounders defender’s faded autograph on the right shoulder blade is symbolic of better times for Elliot, who graduated from Lake Washington High in Kirkland.
The Seattle native has been a fan of the club since their USL days playing at Memorial Stadium with an Orca whale as part of the team logo. Elliot, 33, was a goalkeeper as a kid, so Sounders keepers Kasey Keller and Stefan Frei are among his favorite players. Aside from being a season-ticket holder for three seasons, witnessing the Sounders’ 2019 MLS Cup win from the nosebleed seats is his favorite memory.
“It was the greatest day of my life up until now,” Elliot said.
Elliot had to give up the season tickets because he was laid off from Boeing in 2017. He returned to school to study photography and turned an internship into a full-time position in March 2020 — days before the pandemic hit and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a “stay home, stay healthy” order to stem the spread of the virus.
The wedding photography company shuttered its business, ending Elliot’s employment. The shutdown also meant Elliot’s trip to London was canceled, where he planned to propose to his partner Renni. Instead, they said “yes” on a floral couch before their dog in the couple’s Seattle living room.
The couple was living in their car by August because their combined income from gig work couldn’t cover expenses — especially their $2,000/month rent. The Riley jersey is now one of the few items of clothing that Elliot owns.
The couple opted to move to Las Vegas, but they still struggled to earn an income that would cover rent. The couple is in the process of packing and moving, again — this time possibly into a home because the amount of donations mean the couple can afford a down payment.
And that’s after Elliot spread $12,000 of his donations to others needing electric bills paid or money for medication. He’s also sent money to people in Texas struggling to survive through power outages from a winter storm that blanketed the state in snow and ice.
“The last two days have just been me living my dream of being able to help people in need,” said Elliot, who now has more than 16,900 followers on TikTok. “My whole body has just been buzzing with positive energy from all of these people. I get choked up because I’ve been bullied my whole life and people actually appreciate how hard I’m trying. It means a lot.”
Christian St. Croix, a playwright based in San Diego, is likely why Elliot’s video went viral. The men don’t know each other, but St. Croix said he saw the clip Tuesday evening and was moved to post it on his Twitter account that has fewer than 3,000 followers.
“Something needs to be done about this,” St. Croix said in the post. The video has 3.2 million views with the tweet getting more than 14,500 retweets. In the comments is a debate about tipping and how some believe the companies are abusing the system.
According to the nonprofit One Fair Wage, only seven states — including Washington and Nevada — require a fair wage for workers who work for tips. The other 43 states permit tipped workers to be paid a sub-minimum wage, which federal law sets at $2.13 per hour. The federal minimum wage for untipped workers is $7.25 per hour, but President Joe Biden remains in support of raising that to $15 per hour.
“In that moment, it was blaming the people that don’t tip, but I know that it’s so much more than that,” said Elliot, who also works part-time at Pizza Hut. “As a society, Americans have decided that tipping is a thing and companies are exploiting that. Until we take away a company’s ability to exploit their workers, we really do rely on those tips. By not tipping us, you’re not punishing Uber, you’re punishing me.”