In the past week, Mostafa Maklad has taken more trips to the grocery store than usual. He’s gone to stock up on things like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and non-perishable food—not for himself, but for customers who hire him on Postmates. Maklad lives in San Francisco, where prepper tendencies run deep and stores have been ransacked in the weeks since the first cases of Covid-19 arrived. When Maklad gets an order for something like hand sanitizer and can’t find it on the shelves, it triggers a back-and-forth with the customer to see if they want it replaced or refunded. Sometimes, they simply cancel the order. “It’s a lot of wasted time,” he says.
Maklad and delivery workers like him are at the vanguard of the “social distancing” practices that have arisen in recent weeks. As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, many Americans are adapting to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says will be a “significant disruption” to their daily lives. More people are working from home, cancelling big gatherings, and hunkering down for what could be weeks of isolation. For people in the delivery business, that means more requests to pick up groceries, acquire hand sanitizer in bulk, and brave a germ-filled world when people of means would rather not.
Orders on platforms like Instacart, Postmates, and DoorDash have surged in recent weeks as more folks shut out the outside world. On Monday, Amazon notified customers that Prime Now deliveries would take longer than usual because of the rising demand. As many other gig workers are facing decreasing requests for things like ridesharing and dog-walking, the rush for delivery can mean good things for income. But it also raises an ethical question: Is it OK to hire someone to assume a risk you don’t want to?
The answer is more complicated than you might think. On the surface, it seems obvious to not do something that could compromise someone’s health, especially when officials are urging people to keep their distance. At the same time, independent contractors don’t get paid time off or sick days; not hiring them cuts into their livelihoods. Organizations like Gig Workers Rising have started petitions to pressure companies to offer more benefits to their workers, and over the weekend the Wall Street Journal reported many companies—including Instacart, Postmates, and DoorDash—were discussing ways to compensate gig workers. (WIRED confirmed Grubhub was also part of the discussions, but the company declined to elaborate.) Until they do, though, hiring gig workers is still an option for many people. It just requires being conscientious.
“The fundamental problem with these independent contractors is that, in a moment like this, they have nothing to fall back on,” says Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. “If you don’t order, then that hurts workers.”
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For one, think about the health of the person you’re hiring, and what the risk levels are in your area. “At the end of the day, they’re on the front lines in terms of exposure and risk,” says Lauren Casey, one of the lead organizers of Gig Workers Rising. A recent survey of 600 rideshare drivers found that while many (53 percent) were very concerned about reduced earnings during the Covid-19 outbreak, a significant number (43 percent) were also worried about contracting the coronavirus on the job. Also, the CDC estimates that 70 percent of food-born illnesses—not just the coronavirus, but things like the flu—can be traced back to sick food service workers. When it comes to deliveries, services in the US are offering protections for customers like “contactless” drop-offs, where workers leave items for people to pick up. But that doesn’t necessarily protect the deliverer from anything they come in contact with along the way.
That leaves gig workers like Maklad, who works for Postmates, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Caviar, and Amazon Flex, caught between the advice of health organizations and the realities of his job. “Everyone has said the same thing: If you are sick, just stay home,” he says. “But if I stay home, I don’t get sick leave, and I don’t get paid.” For now, he’s decided to take the risk because he has bills to pay and a family to support.
For people ordering delivery and courier services, another important thing is to just be nice. Some delivery workers have seen a boon to business, but have been unhappy with the way customers have treated them. “A lot of people don’t understand the limits of our abilities,” says Robert, who works for Instacart, Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash in central West Virginia. (He asked that his full name not be used.) He’s declined a few Instacart bids recently because he knows that the grocery stores in his area have been ransacked. For every item he can’t fulfill on an order, Instacart refunds the customer and docks some of his pay. “If half the items on the list are gone, you’ve just lost half of your pay,” he says. Plus, customers don’t tip as well or give good ratings when that happens. “A lot of times our ratings suffer because they’re mad about something else.”
In the gig economy, ratings are everything. Workers with higher ratings get preference on orders, which means they get to work more. And many platforms have a threshold of how low ratings can get before a courier is bumped off the service altogether. Often, those thresholds are unforgiving: On DoorDash, a rating of 4.2 will get you deactivated. On Uber, it’s a 4.6.
“Ratings affect their ability to even access their work,” says Molly Tran, the director of public health at Elmhurst College, who studies workplace health and safety. “I’m sure many are thinking about things like: Can they wear a mask? Or will that affect their ratings?”
Advocates for gig workers think now is the time for customers to put pressure on companies to treat their workers differently. Recently, Uber and Lyft offered drivers up to two weeks of paid leave if they are diagnosed with the coronavirus and quarantined. (The benefit doesn’t apply before drivers are diagnosed, nor to other communicable illnesses.) Last week, Senator Mark Warner sent letters to Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash, urging each of them to create funds to allow workers to self-quarantine without losing pay.
Jayaraman says that customers who are worried about the ethics of ordering delivery during a global pandemic should zoom out and think about those structural issues. Yes, it’s fine to order delivery, but also consider the system more broadly. In the meantime, it’s worth giving your delivery worker a little extra cash.
“People should consider, coronavirus or not, that they’re ordering a premium service,” says Robert, the courier in West Virginia. “We’re not your pizza guy. He’s making minimum wage plus mileage. We’re not.”
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