Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Reporter Spent a Few Days as a Gig Economy Food Courier

Andy Newman, New York Times:

Delivering restaurant food has always been a hard, thankless job. With the apps, it is becoming more flexible and better paying — but in some ways less stable.

This, said Niels van Doorn, an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam who spent six months in New York studying app riders last year, “is what happens with an already precarious work force — what happens to an already invisibilized work force — when these platforms come to town.”

My own 27 hours on a borrowed electric bike, alternately hellbent and ping-starved as I navigated chaotic streets and clattering restaurant kitchens and sleek apartment towers, were an immersion in the paradoxes and perils of a job in which making more than minimum wage requires the physical daring of a bullfighter and the cognitive reflexes of a day trader. (I have neither.)

Being any kind of courier seems like a harrowing job, but that seems particularly so in the case of apps like Uber Eats, Foodora, and DoorDash. The latter has a unique tipping policy:

DoorDash offers a guaranteed minimum for each job. For my first order, the guarantee was $6.85 and the customer, a woman in Boerum Hill who answered the door in a colorful bathrobe, tipped $3 via the app. But I still received only $6.85.

Here’s how it works: If the woman in the bathrobe had tipped zero, DoorDash would have paid me the whole $6.85. Because she tipped $3, DoorDash kicked in only $3.85. She was saving DoorDash $3, not tipping me.

There is no way that customers believe that, when they tip, they’re helping DoorDash pay their workers. DoorDash does explain its tipping model on its website, but only in the most opaque language possible. How is this legal?

Newman also wrote an extended first-person report about how the article was put together:

Another unpleasant surprise: For almost two-thirds of my 43 deliveries, I got no tip. You may think the delivery fee takes care of the rider, but the apps’ pay structure leaves riders dependent on tips to make a living wage.

A friend of mine who has been delivering for three years, Wilder Selzer, called the job “a great window into our stratification.” Quite a few times, he said, he has delivered to people — men and women alike — who answered the door in their underwear, but not in a sexy way.

“It goes back to the class thing,” he said. “You’re like a eunuch — it’s O.K. to be naked in front of you because you’re not a person person.”

Aziz Shamim famously tweeted several years ago that Silicon Valley is obsessed with creating services that do what twenty-somethings’ moms did for them before they moved away from home, but I’ve always thought that interpretation wasn’t quite right. I think these services jealously attempt to replicate conveniences available to people who work several pay grades above them. There is a — and please forgive me for the phrasing here — trickling down of conveniences; on the other hand, it is at the expense of the livelihoods of a greater number of individuals needed to do these jobs.

Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic described these services earlier this year as the “servant economy”, and I think he’s entirely correct.

See Also: Why Paris Marx doesn’t use Uber (via Michael Lopp).