Photo Credit: Workers Justice Project
In the winter 2023 issue of New Labor Forum, columnist Kressent Pottenger exposed the harsh and demeaning conditions food delivery workers have endured for the privilege of earning a subminimum wage plus tips. The story was hopeful, but it has not ended: Delivery workers had formed an association, Los Deliveristas Unidos, and they had won a six-point package of improvements from New York’s City Council, including a proposed wage increase, rising to $23.82 an hour by 2025. But after more than two years, the wage proposal is still in limbo, and workers continue to rely on tips to earn a living wage. Nevertheless, the Deliverista campaign has been an important first step in regulating a major sector of the gig economy.
While it is worth repeating the litany of injustices delivery workers have suffered, it is most useful at this point to shine a light on the underground economy in which they and so many other immigrants and people of color toil and, in that light, to see their accomplishments in a larger context—nothing short of environmental justice and food justice in urban communities sharply divided along lines of race and class.
In the wake of a three-year pandemic, Ligia Guallpa, Director of the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), and New Labor Forum Associate Editor Kitty Krupat began a series of conversations, hoping to broaden the discourse. The experience of delivery workers in New York City was a window on the world of essential work and the surprising complexities of a gig economy.
The WJP and How It Grew
Armed with a college education and a passion stemming from her own deep roots in the immigrant community, Ligia Guallpa helped to found the Worker’s Justice Project in 2010—well before the pandemic:
Low-paid immigrant workers in New York City were facing an economic crisis, including high unemployment. Their neighborhoods were becoming ‘food deserts’; they had little to no information about health care and almost no understanding of their rights as workers.
To address these problems, WJP started as an education center, operating out of a trailer in Bensonhurst, a largely immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn. But as the pandemic took its toll on poor communities, WJP shifted gears to become an emergency relief center. They created food pantries, made and distributed face masks, and delivered basic provisions to the most disadvantaged. They even provided cash relief to workers who were having a hard time paying the rent. Through it all, they nurtured a broad vision:
Our goal has always been to help workers and their leaders become decision-makers; to empower them to take ownership over their own fights; and ultimately to assist them in their efforts to organize.
WJP has gone from a small dues-paying organization to one that is funded by the New York City Council and community foundations, including the North Star Fund and Brooklyn Community Foundation. With two centers in Brooklyn and fifteen thousand members, they have expanded operations, helping day laborers and domestic workers find decent employment and establish their own campaigns. In collaboration with SUNY Empire State College, WJP developed a higher education program to help members learn their rights and develop their skills as organizers.
WJP began organizing delivery workers in March 2020. Since then, WJP has built labor alliances, notably with 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and the Transport Workers Union. New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are among their biggest boosters.
As the director of WJP, Ligia Guallpa represents workers employed in the low-paid gig economy, a sector defined as freelance work in which employees are classified as independent contractors; where there is no permanent workplace or regular schedule; and where digital apps are home base, connecting workers, businesses, and customers. Under federal labor law, gig workers do not have collective bargaining rights. They are not covered by minimum wage laws, nor do they have protections such as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, or family leave of any kind. While the gig economy covers a range of occupations, including relatively well-paid jobs in technology, most gig workers are at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many are forced to work six days a week to meet basic needs.
Guallpa credits higher education with giving her an understanding of the political economy and social context in which gig work has burgeoned. But her understanding of everyday life for low-paid immigrant workers comes from a shared personal history. Born in Ecuador, she came to the United States with her family in 1995, at the age of ten. Her family struggled to survive on her father’s wages as a day laborer and the pay her mother earned as a freelance garment worker. For a time, the family lived in one room:
That time in my life, that was the moment I decided to be an organizer. I had it clear in my mind; I didn’t want to be one of those kids who goes to college and right away moves out of the neighborhood and into another kind of life. So many of them talk about social justice as if it’s something out of the past, a piece of our history rather than a life-and-death question in the present. That way of thinking doesn’t make anything better for people who have to fight an unjust social and political system in order to survive.
For many gig workers, the labor movement is an inspiration. They see it as the achievement of immigrants and a powerful force for social change. They aspire to be union members with full rights to collective bargaining. But right now, membership in a worker center is their pathway to representation; a way to find their own voice in the workplace and organize for a better life.
What’s More Essential than Food?
As Covid-19 gathered steam in 2020, the term “essential worker” entered our everyday vocabulary with heightened meaning. We now saw essential work as a matter of life and death in communities hard hit by the pandemic. In New York—where the authors of this article live—the “seven p.m. clap” became a nightly ritual of appreciation for medical professionals, ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, uniformed services, building security staff, and other frontline workers. People opened their windows, stepped out onto fire escapes, and stopped where they were on the streets and applauded. For fifteen minutes, it felt like an act of solidarity, crossing lines of race and class. But the moment was illusory. In this outpouring of gratitude, an army of low-paid workers in the gig economy of day laborers, nannies, cleaners, and delivery workers went unnoticed—even those who performed that most essential of tasks, delivering food to people during a lockdown. Not only did these workers provide essential services to individuals, they were instrumental in shoring up a vital part of the urban economy. Without them, hundreds of restaurants and fast-food joints would have closed for lack of diners. It is no surprise, but it bears repeating: the overwhelming majority—more than 90 percent—are people of color and immigrants. While the largest number are from Latin America, deliveristas come from all over the world, including South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. About four percent are women, but that number is growing, largely because gig work offers a degree of flexibility in balancing work and family obligations:
Conditions are the same for all delivery workers. Black, Brown, or white—documented or undocumented—they all get paid poverty wages. Women or men, they are all in the streets, facing the same hazards. This is their power. It’s what unites them.
The Urban Ecosystem Is Their Workplace
There are sixty-five thousand food delivery workers in New York City alone. They are ubiquitous, speeding down city streets on their electric bikes at all hours of the day and night and in all weather—rain, snow, blazing heat. To many pedestrians and drivers, they are a menace. Almost no one fully recognizes the importance of their work or the safety hazards they encounter on a daily basis, weaving through a maze of outdoor dining huts, double-parked cars, and oncoming traffic Almost half of all delivery workers have reported traffic-related injuries. A shocking number have died—over twenty-six in the last two years. Bicycle theft is common as are assault and robbery.
Most people who receive their meals from delivery workers are oblivious to the degree of exploitation these workers endure from the apps—their de facto employers—and sometimes from customers as well. Yet, deliveristas are an important part of the urban ecosystem, in terms of both the environment and food justice. Greener than buses, trucks, and cars, their bikes do not produce harmful emissions, nor do they raise the level of noise pollution. Bikes take up very little space and are altogether a more efficient means of delivery than vans, even small vans. Moreover, in large cities like New York, where the gap between rich and poor is very great, delivery workers help to level the playing field, delivering food to low-income and wealthier communities without distinction. In the big picture, delivery workers are providing a model of urban mobility that could change the way people, as well as goods, move around the city:
The delivery industry is growing and it’s not limited to food. It includes goods from laundries, pet stores, pharmacies, groceries—you name it. For everyone in this industry, city streets are a workplace. Urban planners, environmentalists, and community organizations have a lot to learn from them. They should be at the table—their voice is very important in any discussion about transforming the transportation infrastructure into a system that is accessible, equitable, and safe for all city-dwellers, whether they are among the privileged classes or the working poor.
Local Delivery, Global Reach
Not so long ago, food delivery workers were employed by individual restaurants. Now, almost without exception, they work for online ordering platforms such as DoorDash and Grubhub. Through algorithms of their own design, the apps control the flow of work, up to and including delivery routes. Though they exercise complete managerial authority, the apps maintain that delivery workers are not their employees. Instead, they say, delivery workers are part-time, independent contractors. Hewing to this line, the apps have evaded their duty to meet labor standards for the workers who keep their online enterprises humming.
With their goofy names, DoorDash and GrubHub sound like local mom-and-pop shops. In reality, their reach is global. DoorDash, the largest delivery app, is based in San Francisco with services in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Japan, as well as the United States. A public corporation, their investors include giants of international capital—BlackRock, the Vanguard Group, and Morgan Stanley, among others. By the end of 2020, DoorDash was used by 450,000 merchants, 20,000,000 consumers, and one million delivery workers. By 2021, their annual revenue was $4.888 billion. That revenue included delivery fees. Today, a delivery fee can be as high as $8.00 per order. The workers never see a dime of that fee.
At the start of 2022, DoorDash was paying deliveristas an average of $7.87 an hour, well below New York City’s minimum of $14.00. To reach the minimum, workers were expected to make up the difference in tips. Out of their meager wages, they were also expected to purchase and maintain their own e-bikes—which can cost anywhere from $600 to more than $1,000—and provide essentials such as gloves and other protective equipment, phones, and insulated delivery bags. A deliverista could rack up as much as $10,000 in annual business expenses. They support themselves and their families on what’s left.
The subminimum wage system for tipped employees is perfectly legal in all but seven states and the territory of Guam. It extends to a huge swath of workers, from restaurant wait staff, to cab drivers, to deliveristas. Consumers are so acculturated to the tipping system, most of us never question it. But for deliveristas, the system is a minefield of exploitation. Most tips are included by customers in their credit card payments. In an unregulated gig economy, the apps were under no legal obligation to be transparent, so, most of the time, workers had no idea how much tip was included. They believed the apps were simply pocketing all or a portion of their tips. In fact, DoorDash and other apps have been sued by customers and workers for misappropriating tips.
Even when customers tip in cash, the outcome is iffy. Customers are generous—or not. They tip on the basis of service. If a delivery is late because of rush-hour traffic or because a restaurant did not have the order ready on time, the delivery worker pays the price in lost tips. If the customer files a complaint, that delivery worker can be “deactivated”—removed or suspended from their app account by a global, digitized corporation that never sees their face or hears their voice.
Neighborhood by Neighborhood: Becoming Los Deliveristas Unidos
By most standards, delivery workers are isolated from one another, sitting by their phones and computers, checking the apps for a job to pop up. But in the early days of Covid, they started to develop informal neighborhood networks, often gathering in public parks to kick a soccer ball around or take a lunch break together. Naturally, their conversations turned to work and their common problems:
During the pandemic, food-delivery became a full-time job for many gig workers. Some worked 60 hours a week. But as far as the apps were concerned, they were still part-timers, free and independent, enjoying the benefits of a flexible work schedule. The workers were fed up with that false narrative. Out of necessity, they started to build a solidarity network. They developed WhatsApp groups so they could check in on each other—help co-workers who had trouble with their bikes or problems with the apps. And they were setting up committees, sometimes only a few people; sometimes as many as 500. One committee for women delivery workers started with 41 members, all of them mothers. They figured out that all they had was each other; there was no other means of survival.
The workers started comparing notes. Latinos talked to Black and Asian workers: “Did you take that cheap $4.00 delivery? No? I’m not taking it either.” And they would laugh at the apps together. Acts of solidarity like that showed them they had power. Little by little, a group of activists was emerging.
With a barebones infrastructure in place, this core leadership formed Los Deliveristas Unidos and joined the WJP, determined to fight not just for better pay but also for fundamental human rights such as shelter from cold and rain and access to a bathroom.
Their first meeting was a revelation to Ligia Guallpa:
It was an inspirational moment. There was a whole other dimension to it—way beyond the violation of workers’ rights. It was almost like we were talking about an entire underground economy and deciding to turn it around. Let’s organize; let’s transform this gig industry.
The workers started taking Guallpa into the neighborhoods where they work and sometimes gather for lunch. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, she met with a group of two hundred deliveristas, all taking a break together. Moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, she realized there were thousands of like-minded deliveristas, from every part of the globe. Bringing this diverse community together was—and remains—a motivating force for Los Deliveristas Unidos.
A Winning Campaign
Los Deliveristas Unidos developed a set of demands they would put before the City Council. In addition to an increase in the minimum wage, they wanted rest hubs, some reimbursement for business expenses, and accountability from the apps. For months before their campaign kicked off, union leaders of 32BJSEIU and Local 100 of the TWU were meeting with them, discussing strategy and providing legal advice:
The workers were saying, “Wow, we’re meeting with union presidents. They’re treating us like equals.” It uplifted their own self-esteem as leaders and helped them see what they were building. To have a local union President like John Samuelsen of the Transport Workers ask them about their organizing strategies, their leadership structure, and their prospects for success—it was empowering, but it was also challenging.
To mount a successful campaign, Los Deliveristas had to address a basic problem: communications among a decentralized and dispersed workforce. Language itself was a barrier for workers from many countries and cultures. Thus, language justice—assuring equal access to information, services, and entitlements across multilingual communities—became a fundamental organizing principle. Local leadership committees and the use of social media brought workers together across neighborhoods. Community organizations, including churches, offered meeting places. Alliances with other worker centers connected delivery workers and helped them build their organizing capacity. DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) is a long-standing partner. With a constituency of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean workers, it is located in Jackson Heights, the most diverse enclave in New York City.
On October 13, 2020, Senator Chuck Schumer biked through Harlem, alongside a dozen deliveristas, making clear his support for their demands. A few days later, a bicycle cavalcade of one thousand app workers delivered those demands to City Hall, kicking off a coordinated public campaign of rallies and vigils, drawing as many as three thousand demonstrators. Throughout the campaign, Los Deliveristas drove home the point: wages are critical, but human dignity is the bottom line.
The first breakthrough came midway through the campaign, on September 23, 2021, when the City Council passed six bills, including a mandate to provide public shelter areas with bathrooms and charging stations. The legislation also required apps to be fully transparent, not only about tips but also about delivery routes, allowing workers a degree of autonomy in choosing which gig to take and which to turn down. But the apps are fighting back, especially against a proposal to raise minimum wages by more than 200 percent over three years. As a result, the wage proposal that Deliveristas won in partnership with the city is being held up while the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection reviews more than two thousand public comments. So, the struggle continues.
Labor Rights Are Human Rights
Without recourse to collective bargaining, gig workers have relied on a combination of ingenuity and guts to achieve the most basic improvements in their work and personal lives. The National Alliance of Domestic Workers, for example, pursued legislation over a period of fifteen years, resulting in a Bill of Rights for domestic workers in thirteen states and municipalities. In New York City, the Taxi Workers Alliance prevailed after a fifteen-day hunger strike in the fall of 2021 that brought cabbies relief from the crippling debt of mortgages on taxi medallions. Los Deliveristas Unidos has taken on the apps and made a larger point: Together, gig workers—like any other workers—can win a measure of justice. But there is a lot more organizing to do, especially in African and Asian communities and in other cities, like Seattle, where workers are already consulting with Los Deliveristas Unidos.
In California, several units of grocery store delivery workers (regular employees of those stores) have joined the United Food and Commercial Workers and gained improvements:
Are the deliveristas thinking about affiliating with a union? Sure, that would greatly enhance their power, but first they need to strengthen their infrastructure and expand their networks. They are fighting for labor rights, but that’s not all. They see themselves as part of a broad urban movement in the United States, working alongside environmental and food justice groups, transportation advocates, consumers, and unions, of course.
The proliferation of gig work is an international phenomenon. In India, for example, the informal economy accounts for nearly 90 percent of all jobs—millions of them in the app-based delivery industry:
So far, we’ve had limited contact with workers outside of the U.S., Of course, there’s a great potential for international organizing, but right now our strategy is to build a national movement before we scale up to a global campaign.
The movement that Guallpa envisions is a living model for the ideals of common-good organizing:
We need to create a laboratory—a team of experts that includes worker centers as well as unions, community groups, social justice organizations, and technology professionals. Everybody needs to be in this laboratory, talking to each other about how we develop innovative organizing strategies and practices. Workers need to be part of any decision-making process.
Together, we need to think about how some of the enormous wealth in our country can be redistributed so workers have a decent quality of life—good jobs and fair pay, but also basic human rights like health care, housing, and clean air.
1. Much of the data in our story, including demographics, statistics, and information on wages, are documented in “Essential but Unprotected: App-based Food Couriers in New York City,” a study conducted by Maria Figueroa, Ligia Guallpa, Andrew Wolf, Glendy Tsitouras, and Hildalyn Colón Hernández. The report was published by the Worker Institute of Cornell University’s ILR School in collaboration with the Worker’s Justice Project.
2. See DoorDash, Inc. Consolidated Statements of Operations & Balance Sheets for Fiscal year 2021.
3. See “In Harm’s Way: Delivery Workers Fight the Apps,” by Kressent Pottenger in the Winter 2023 issue of New Labor Forum.
4. See fairshake.com for a review of lawsuits against DoorDash.
5. Desis refers to people of South Asian birth or descent who live abroad.
6. For the year 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that jobs in the informal sector accounted for 88.1 percent of all jobs. For greater detail on the gig economy in India—particularly delivery work—see “For India’s Couriers, Every Second Counts,” by Emily Schmall and Karen Deep Singh, in the New York Times business section, January 4, 2023. This story, which projects exponential growth in India’s gig economy, illustrates profound similarities in conditions for Indian and U.S. delivery workers.
Kitty Weiss Krupat, a life-long organizer and labor educator, was associate director of the CUNY Murphy Institute until her retirement in 2014. She is currently an associate editor of New Labor Forum. With Patrick McCreery, she is the co-editor of Out At Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
Ligia M. Guallpa is co-founder and director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a worker education center in Brooklyn that supports organizing efforts of workers in the low-paid gig economy, including members of Los Deliveristas Unidos. Her first job after graduating from the State University of New York was at the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LACLA).