What It’s Like to Be a Seamless Delivery Rider in New York

Paid in cash and working for a middleman who didn't even know my full name, I wondered what would happen if I got hit by a bus while out on a delivery. Such is life in the gig economy.

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Apr 11 2016, 6:00pm

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

During my first week as a bike delivery girl in Brooklyn, I rode out to a potholed, industrial block on Grand Street to bring a veggie burger to a strip club called Pumps. That night I was working for a vegan spot in East Williamsburg that apparently got a lot of orders from the dancers at the club. The person who greeted me at the door to the club was not a dancer but a security guard. I thrust the paper bag into his hands and raced back to the restaurant, where three more orders had piled up in my absence.

I was beyond unqualified for this job. No one seemed particularly concerned, though, as long as I showed up for my shifts on time. As a member of the shadowy hoard of riders delivering North Brooklyn's Seamless orders, I was beholden to no one.

To the customer on the receiving end of a Seamless delivery, the informal network of labor that makes the app possible is not necessarily visible. "Welcome to New York. The role of your mom will be played by us," reads one of the ads in the company's current subway campaign. But who exactly is "us"? Seamless receives a commission from restaurants for every order placed on their platform, but it's up to the restaurants to coordinate delivery. In many cases, the "moms" bringing food to the customer's front door aren't officially employed by the restaurant, or by anyone.

Delivery work is most lucrative when it is dangerous and unpleasant; one rider told me he made $300 during a freak November blizzard.

When I moved to New York City in the summer of 2014 without a job or a plan, my roommate suggested that I talk to a cycling buddy of his. The buddy told me to text a guy named Mike and tell him I was looking for delivery work. "Cool," Mike responded, "I'll put you on my list." Mike texted all of his riders whenever a shift became available. If you replied first, the shift was yours. Mike coordinated delivery for several North Brooklyn restaurateurs, who all paid him in cash. I never learned his last name, and I'd been working for him for two weeks before I met him in person.

In my first week on Mike's list, I snagged one weekly shift at a gourmet pizza joint and a few subs at a handful of different places. The shifts were all four to six hours long, and the restaurants directly paid me a base shift rate of $20 to $40 in cash, which was supplemented by cash and in-app tips. In-app tips would be counted up either at the end of the night or at the end of each delivery run, and then paid out in cash. Usually, the manager or owner did this in front of me, physically going through the printed-out receipts, adding up the tips, and then paying them out from the register as a lump sum. Sometimes, when I was out for a delivery at the end of a shift, they would add the in-app tips up without me present. I never had reason to believe the amount I received didn't match the receipts, though I heard from other riders that tip skimming and receipt withholding did sometimes occur with other delivery apps.

I wondered what would happen if I got hit by a bus while out on a delivery. Such is life in the gig economy.

On my best night—the strip club night—I took home almost $90 after an exhausting four-hour sprint. Some nights, often when the weather was especially nice, I made less than $30. Delivery work is most lucrative when it is dangerous and unpleasant; one rider told me he made $300 during a freak November blizzard.

I spoke to a number of other New York delivery riders who confirmed that loosely organized "crews" like Mike's are a common model, especially in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, more restaurants employ delivery workers directly, on or off the books. Dispatchers may seem like sketchy middlemen, but they actually act as advocates, negotiating better rates and following up if riders believe restauranteurs are illegally taking portions of in-app tips.

I definitely felt that Mike had my back. Still, he didn't know my full name or my emergency contact. I wondered what would happen if I got hit by a bus while out on a delivery. Such is life in the gig economy.

While apps may have increased the volume of delivery work, the reward per ride has gone down.

According to Sarah Hughes of CUNY's Murphy Institute for Worker Education & Labor Studies, "the 'gig' or 'app economy' is really just a new name for an old problem." Employers have long looked for ways to designate workers as independent contractors not entitled to benefits and protections. "Technology has given an old issue a new platform," Hughes says, "but fundamentally, the relationship to capital has not changed."

Seamless may have merely given a new face to an old service, but in the process it's arguably changed the way consumers conceive of and interact with delivery workers—namely through tipping. Sandra Glading, director of public relations at Seamless, told me that she hopes the app has "affected tipping culture positively," but every rider I spoke to believes that tipping through the anonymous touch of a button seems to encourage skimping on the part of the customer. While Seamless and similar apps may have increased the volume of delivery work, the reward per ride has gone down.

My tolerance for risk and pay volatility was ultimately way too low for delivery work. After six weeks, I landed a job at a nonprofit with health insurance and a regular paycheck. When I texted Mike to tell him I was quitting, he replied, "Cool! Thanks." Easy come, easy go. There were plenty of other riders to bring veggie burgers to the strip clubs of Brooklyn.