Like clockwork Jack Lee, 59, wakes up at 8 a.m. every morning, eats a quick breakfast and makes the 11-mile journey on his electric bike from his home in Flushing to Manhattan to deliver food for the upscale food delivery app Caviar. Under normal circumstances, it’s not unusual for Lee to work over 12 hour days as he has normally done for the past seven years. Much of the money he made was sent back to Shanghai in order to support his aging mother. The work was hard and taxing on his body, but he enjoyed the flexibility it gave him.
“In the beginning the money was good and I set my own hours,” he says. “It was much better than working in the restaurant.”
However, with the city virtually shutting down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee, like 400,000 of his fellow, mostly immigrant food delivery workers, has found himself on the front line of this fast developing crisis. Despite forwarnings by the CDC to self isolate, Lee is still compelled to leave the safety of his home to ensure he could still afford to have one. “Right now I have to work, but not many orders are coming in. That means less income. But I have to keep coming to Manhattan for work so I have at least some income to pay my bills and rent.”
Food delivery workers, like others in the gig economy, were once thought of as “unskilled laborers.” With the majority of food delivery workers riding electric bikes, their work had been basically criminalized. If caught riding an e-bike, workers were forced to pay a $500 fine and can have their bike confiscated. Restaurant owners were also subjected to a $100 fine if their worker is caught with an e-bike.
From e-bike violators to essential servants
When San Francisco recently announced its order barring residents from the city’s streets unless for essential needs, delivery and other gig workers were exempt. With officials increasingly calling for New Yorkers to stay home and restaurants forced to provide takeout only, food delivery workers will undoubtedly be working overtime.
“What we have seen in other places with the coronavirus pandemic, as people stay home, delivery skyrockets,” says Do Lee, Assistant Professor at Queens College who has studied food delivery workers. “As New Yorkers, we are going to further rely on food delivery workers to bring us food. The workers, in a lot of ways, are taking risks to help people who are sick, yet the city has for a long time criminalized them for doing their job.”
On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio declared a temporary suspension of the e-bike ban after City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and Carlos Menchaca wrote a letter to the mayor urging him to lift it and treat delivery workers as essential workers.
“If we declare that we are all in this together, then that must mean everyone, especially our most vulnerable neighbors, such as immigrant delivery workers,” Menchaca tells City Limits. “I’ve learned in my time in the Council that New York City rarely lives up to its progressive self-image without pressure. I will always use my office to amplify that pressure, especially during a national emergency.”
Risks abound for workers at the margins
Although lifting the e-bike ban will certainly ease the burden for food delivery workers, there are still many pitfalls before them.“The pandemic is going to exacerbate risks for them. They will be under pressure to deliver quickly,” says Lee. “The volume of deliveries is likely to explode. I think its a positive step the city has taken to suspend E-bike enforcement at this moment but it’s really critical, moving forward, that more is done.”
Organizations that work with low-wage migrant workers such as the Flushing Workers Center and Chinese Staff & Workers Association are sounding the alarm. “Delivery workers are literally going out there and being exposed to the virus. Everyone is saying the peak has not happened yet,” says Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Flushing Workers Center. “As we get closer to that peak, the delivery workers are going to be in contact. If there isn’t any economic security for these people then they will have to keep working even if they are sick themselves and that’s a huge public safety concern.”
As an independent contractor, Jack Lee doesn’t have many options to fall back on if he falls ill. Unemployment is not an option for him, nor is paid leave. Increasingly, he feels like his concerns are being ignored. “The government should pay attention to workers like me, risking our lives to do the work. We have no health insurance and no benefits. We can’t even apply for unemployment.”
Activists for other gig economy workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers are calling for the state to expand unemployment insurance to app drivers as the cab industry faces a revenue decline of 75 to 80 percent because of the pandemic. “The current crisis has exposed the arbitrary and purposeless nature of current legal distinctions between employees and independent contractors, that allow essential social benefits to some workers but not others,” wrote New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai in a Tuesday letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “At this crucial moment, ALL workers require adequate protections for public health and to avoid economic devastation.”
Will relief policies help?
Recently, Lee’s employer, Caviar, announced their COVID-19 Financial Assistance Program. Under the program, workers may qualify for up to two weeks of financial assistance if they are diagnosed with the virus or put under quarantine by a public health agency. DoorDash, another food delivery app, also announced a similar plan. However, with reports of COVID-19 testing costing thousands of dollars and lack of healthcare access for many food delivery workers, it’s an understatement to say that those programs will fall short.
Alternatively, the Flushing Workers Center and Chinese Staff & Workers Association is calling on the mayor and governor to establish an emergency relief fund for laid off workers and for workers that test positive for the virus, regardless of their immigration status. For them, private relief programs like Caviar’s don’t go far enough. “Paid leave is not enough. That’s why we are calling for an emergency disaster fund,” says Ahn. “Everyone knows there are plenty of people in the workforce, such as undocumented folks, that are not eligible for it or won’t come out to seek it. It’s important to set up a fund that will go directly to workers so they don’t have to feel threatened.”
Menchaca agrees. “Moving forward, we need to ensure that any relief packages we create are universal. That means they help everyone, including undocumented immigrants, who in the case of delivery workers we now see how vital they are to our city’s economy and health.”
Since the magnitude of the pandemic became fully realized in New York, Jack Lee has not slept easily. An aging man with no family to care for him, Lee is unsure how much more wear and tear his body can endure. With the increased competition in the oversaturated food delivery market, he has been forced to reduce the amount of hours he spends cycling around the city to seven. Even though he knows the risk he’s putting himself under, Lee soldiers on. He doesn’t have much choice. “I have to work but at this time we need some relief funds because without it we are at risk. It can help so many others like me.”