Workers who deliver food—who’ve faced a number of job-related risks throughout the pandemic, and many of whom are immigrants—must also contend with the challenges of increasingly extreme weather events.

Jeanmarie Evelly

A food delivery worker dons rain gear in Queens last year.

It had just started to rain last Wednesday afternoon when Juan Solano, who works delivering food for a third-party app, arrived at a restaurant to pick up a customer’s order.

“Today, with this rain, you are going to make it rain,” Solano remembers the manager saying, articulating the belief that inclement weather prompts more generous tips from customers.  

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Solano began working at 5 p.m. fully prepared for a seven-hour shift in the rain, with two fully-charged batteries, plastic-wrapped phones, a portable phone charger and raincoat. But he was not prepared for record-breaking flash floods.

That’s what he and other city food delivery workers faced last week, when remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped historic amounts of rain across the city, prompting floods that killed 13 New Yorkers. Workers who deliver food—who’ve faced a number of job-related risks throughout the pandemic, and many of whom are immigrants—must also contend with the challenges of increasingly extreme weather events. As rains pummeled the boroughs last Wednesday, videos of workers trudging through thigh-high waters with food bags and their bicycles quickly went viral on social media.

Soon after his shift started, Solano saw two delivery workers stuck in a flooded East Harlem street. Based on anecdotal evidence from delivery workers’ Whatsapp groups and their Facebook pages, around 50 delivery workers reported suffering damages during the storm that delivery apps for which they work won’t cover.

That night, there were also reports of delivery workers who were almost robbed, as many have been since the pandemic began, amidst the storm. Anthony, a delivery worker himself who asked not to use his last name, received reports of an attempted robbery around 7:30 p.m. through Facebook from a delivery worker.

“While the delivery worker went upstairs to deliver the order [in the Lower East Side] and came downstairs, a bicycle thief had broken the lock, and thanks to a woman who argued with the thief, the delivery worker got to run before the thief took the bicycle away,” Anthony explained.

Vicente Guerrero, a delivery worker from Mexico, had to stop working during the first showers in the morning on Wednesday because his e-bike, which many delivery workers use to get around, broke down. “The repair cost me $70 dollars,” he said. “When it rains, many people’s electric bicycles break down.”

Guerrero stopped working that stormy night at 9:30, and headed home to discover his three-bedroom basement apartment almost flooded to the roof.

When it rains, apps like Relay—which promotes itself to eateries by stating they can “save money on delivery”—offers delivery workers a $2 incentive per delivery to keep up with demand from ordering platforms.

Guerrero and Solano used Relay during the deadly Ida rainfall, but tips didn’t fall at an eye-opening rate that night. Solano, for example, pushed through until 10:30 p.m. He received $90 dollars in tips after a 5.5-hour workday, around $16.3 per hour. Anthony closed the night with a slightly lower hourly average: $47 dollars in tips after 3 hours (5 to 8 p.m.), equaling $15.6 per hour.

“It wasn’t more than I do on a regular basis,” explained Solano over the phone. “People forget that things get slower when it rains, there is less visibility so drivers need to be more cautious, and labor gets riskier.”

Around 11:26 p.m., Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency, and soon after, Gov. Kathy Hochul seconded it to include the state.

City Limits contacted Relay, Uber Eats, and Grubhub to clarify what action these companies had taken after the state of emergency was declared, but only Grubhub responded.

Grubhub said that the company evaluated closures on a case-by-case basis and made decisions based on information provided by local officials, restaurant partners and drivers. That night, the company “temporarily suspend[ed] operations” as needed based on local conditions, said Grubhub spokesperson in a written statement.

The company didn’t specify how long they halted service for, or whether the decision came before or after the emergency declaration.

The storm has once again galvanized calls for better working conditions for food delivery workers, many of whom are treated as independent contractors by the apps they deliver for.

“They worked in the sunshine, the rain or with winds, and they need protections,” said Hildalyn Colón Hernández, director of policy & strategic partnerships for the advocacy group Los Deliveristas.

The organization is pushing for the passage of a package of six City Council bills (Int 2298, Int 2296, Int 2289, Int 2294, Int 2288, Int 1846) that would mandate basic protections for delivery workers, such as providing access to bathrooms, supplying them with insulated delivery bags, disclosing how much of each gratuity goes to a delivery worker directly and establishing minimum per-trip payments.

Ligia Guallpa, executive director at Workers Justice Project—which represents Los Deliveristas Unidos—said the organization is assessing the Ida damage endured by its members while also raising funds to help workers who were affected.

Their goal is to raise $50,000, which the organization says it will use to provide cash relief and PPE to delivery workers “who are facing violent e-bike robberies, traffic accidents, and other unsafe workplace issues.”

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