Yidi Zhu is 41 years old and has worked as a delivery cyclist in New York City for 16 years after arriving in the country from China. His shifts are 12 hours long, he tells Fast Company through a translator, and during that time he’ll sometimes make as many as 200 deliveries. The city is familiar to him now; he’s traced every imaginable route from the lower end of Manhattan to 14th Street. But lately, he’s been nervous during his shifts.
Zhu, along with 60% of New York’s 50,000 delivery cyclists, rides an electric bike (also known as an e-bike), cycles that are powered by motors built into the bike that allow the rider to transport themselves without having to work so hard to pedal. The majority of e-bike users in the city are, like Zhu, immigrants from China or Latin America who depend on delivery work to make a living. While it’s also common to see messengers zipping around the city on regular bikes, those workers tend to be younger and U.S. born, and often take on delivery work as a supplement to other jobs.
Zhu’s e-bike, which he bought for around $1,000, is his lifeline. When he spoke to Fast Company, he was getting over a cold, but the extra boost from his motor allowed him to keep pedaling without exhausting himself. If he stopped making deliveries, even for a day, he would fall behind on rent and supporting his family. He tries to fit as many deliveries in as possible during a shift; there’s no other way for him to earn enough in tips to supplement his low hourly pay. And for that, the quicker bike is essential. “It would be impossible to make all those deliveries without it,” he says.
But under a revamped policy recently implemented by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Zhu could face fines, or even confiscation, for riding his e-bike in the city. Technically, due to a mismatch in the law, electric bikes are legal to own but illegal to operate, in New York. (Federal law treats motorized bikes like regular bikes. New York state law considers them vehicles, but there’s no way for riders to register them.) The New York Police Department has variably enforced this law over the years; there have been previous incidences of crackdowns on people who ride e-bikes, but this one is different: It was declared as official policy by the mayor.
It’s also been received with total silence from delivery companies like GrubHub, which have facilitated the massive boom in delivery work in cities like New York. The company issued a statement to Fast Company stating that all workers and restaurants that use the platform are obliged to follow local laws, but GrubHub has largely skirted commentary on the e-bike ban, particularly its effect on workers (the company did not respond to multiple attempts for further comment). This silence testifies to a fundamentally untenable problem within the gig economy–the distance between the big tech companies at the top, and the often vulnerable workers that power them on the bottom. While immigrant and bike advocates push for e-bike legalization, de Blasio’s crackdown should serve as a reckoning for gig economy companies regarding how they protect their workers, and under what terms.
Immigrants Power Delivery Work
De Blasio announced the crackdown in October 2017; it officially began in January. It started when an Upper West Side investment manager called into WNYC’s “Ask The Mayor” show to complain about e-bikes, calling them a public threat because their riders exceed speed limits and disobey traffic laws by riding the wrong way on streets and on sidewalks. This reasoning is faulty: Do Lee, a researcher at CUNY Graduate Center and organizer with The Biking Public Project, which works to amplify the voices of underrepresented cyclists like delivery workers, tells Fast Company he has found no evidence in his research that e-bikes have ever killed anyone (drivers caused 144 pedestrian deaths in 2016).
Furthermore, cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Paris have recently legalized e-bikes, citing them as an alternative to cars that’s both viable and safe, and more accessible and usable for people facing mobility issues–and a better solution for the people who power the delivery apps like Seamless, GrubHub, and Postmates that urban dwellers have grown dependent on for their food. In New York, though, de Blasio and the NYPD have proceeded with the crackdown, aiming this year to surpass the 923 e-bikes that were confiscated in 2017. Various NYPD precincts have taken to posting photos of confiscated e-bikes on Twitter, claiming their efforts are advancing street safety in New York.
In response to many many community complaints about motorized #EBikes today we are out confiscating them & summonsing businesses who continue to utilize them after multiple warnings.#VisionZero #UpperEastSide #UES pic.twitter.com/NhlqPgW4Pk
— NYPD 19th Precinct (@NYPD19Pct) January 31, 2018
To Lee, de Blasio’s crackdown is troubling because “it’s based on not ever having conversations with workers about their working conditions, their needs, or the challenges they face,” he says. If he spoke with the workers themselves, Lee adds, the mayor would see what a crucial role e-bikes play in the livelihoods of many immigrant workers–and how detrimental the crackdown potentially is to their well-being.
Of the roughly 150 New York delivery workers Lee has surveyed through his research, the vast majority are immigrants; 78% of Chinese workers use e-bikes, and their median age is around 46, while U.S. born workers’ median age is just 27. “A lot of English-speaking workers see delivery work as a stepping stone to something else,” Lee says. They work as bike couriers while they’re young and healthy, then move on to other jobs later in life. For immigrants, he says, delivery is often the only available work, and as couriers age they grow more dependent on assisted mobility options like e-bikes. Because they have motors, which are either activated with a throttle on the handlebar or by pedaling, e-bikes can comfortably coast at speeds at or slightly over 20 mph, speeds which regular cyclists can hit only with sustained effort and strength. Older delivery workers, whose income is a function of how many deliveries they can make in a day, especially depend on the motor-assisted bikes to make it possible to deliver enough to make a living.
The bikes themselves are an investment. New, they can run as much as $2,000. And given that immigrant delivery workers tend to earn only around $10 per hour (U.S.-born delivery workers can earn $15, often because they’re able to get onto more selective apps like Caviar, which pay more for delivery but, according to Lee, require users to pass an English test), it’s a significant purchase. Zhu says that if he were to get a ticket for riding his e-bike, which could be as much as $500, he would lose around five days of wages. If his bike were to be confiscated and he had to replace it, he would lose as much as a month’s wages.
A Misunderstanding Of The Gig Economy
On some level, de Blasio is aware of the hypocrisy embedded in the mayor of a sanctuary city issuing such a punitive crackdown on his most vulnerable workers. He told the audience at the press conference announcing the crackdown in October that it would not be the workers who shoulder the fines for e-bike usage, but their employers. Austin Finan, a representative for the mayor’s office, reinforced that belief in an email to Fast Company.
But the rapid takeover by delivery apps undermines de Blasio’s logic. While some delivery cyclists work directly for specific restaurants, that’s less and less the case. Workers will often register as delivery cyclists through an app (GrubHub controls nearly 90% of the delivery market in New York City) and with which restaurants also contract; the app facilitates both orders and payments, and skims a portion of the order cost off for itself. Cyclists who use GrubHub often make deliveries on behalf of multiple restaurants, and so are classified as independent contractors. Even if they make deliveries only for one restaurant, it’s usually on a contract basis, not as a standard employee, and they do not receive benefits; this arrangement is grounds for a lawsuit, but immigrant workers will often avoid filing in order to keep their work.
All of which makes de Blasio’s claim of protecting delivery workers ring hollow. “De Blasio specifically said that if they’re independent contractors, it’s like they’re their own business,” Lee says. “The fines won’t go to the restaurants or to the third-party platform; they’ll go to the workers.”
De Blasio also claimed in his press conference that “employers purchase the bikes.” That, Lee says, is not true. “In a normal job, yes, the businesses should provide the tools of the trade,” he says. “This is not a normal occupation.” It’s the condition on most delivery platforms that workers have to provide their own mode of transit–and it’s their responsibility to replace it should anything happen to it. Otherwise, they’re out of work.
The Current Impasse
As it stands, companies like GrubHub and UberEats have no stake in protecting the delivery people, or advocating for e-bike legalization–which, with the political clout tech companies wield, they certainly could do. What they care about is ensuring that the volume and range of deliveries remains high and wide, and that customers remain satisfied with their platforms so that they keep ordering and pushing growth. It doesn’t matter to these companies if an individual worker is fined, or gets a bike confiscated. The platforms are designed so new workers can constantly sign up to make the delivery if another delivery person drops out of the system. This distance between company and worker, says Brian Turoff, a partner in the law firm Venable’s Labor and Employment group, has plagued the gig economy since its inception, and is finally reaching a breaking point now that one in five U.S. workers is an independent contractor.
“Particularly as platforms like Uber and GrubHub have appeared, it’s clear that it’s great that there are jobs available and that people are able to work and do it on their own schedules,” Turoff says. That setup holds a lot of appeal for workers, and essentially guarantees that GrubHub will never face a shortage of delivery workers. But simultaneously, Turoff adds, those workers are “being treated as contractors, and lots of questions arose because they’re not getting the benefit of the protections you otherwise would get as an employee. And that’s really where the tug is.”
It’s not necessarily the case that delivery workers employed as independent contractors always get a bad break. John Shahidi, CEO of the startup Grab Coffee, which is in pilot phase in New York City, encourages his delivery workers to use e-bikes, understanding that they are a more viable and sustainable option. Shahidi tells Fast Company that he is determined to stand up for them in the face of de Blasio’s crackdown. One of his cyclists had a bike confiscated, and Shahidi spent nine hours at the pound helping him get it back. For both Shahidi and cofounder Hanna Matevosyan, it’s a personal issue. “We’re both from immigrant backgrounds,” he says. “It’s something we view as completely unfair.” While Grab cyclists are currently independent contractors, Shahidi says he hopes to bring them in as full employees once the company scales.
For Grab, that feels possible because the company is still small, and trying to grow in an ethical manner. But for companies like GrubHub, which are already huge and lean on cost savings to stay that way, it’s more complicated. GrubHub, for instance, saves a significant amount of money by classifying workers as independent contractors and, as a result, denying them benefits, which make up around 32% of an employees’ salary. By not providing them, the company profits, and workers suffer–especially if they do delivery by bike, get into an accident, and have no workers’ compensation.
A New Model For Protecting Contract Workers
The tension around how workers who use platforms like GrubHub has been strong enough to inspire multiple court cases. In California, for instance, GrubHub delivery worker Raef Lawson filed a suit against the company in 2015, claiming that he should be classified as an employer because when doing deliveries, he had to wear GrubHub-branded apparel and had to complete a background check and watch training videos on “company etiquette.” But that was not enough. Because Lawson created his own schedule, the District Court ruled that meant he was a contractor.
“There are ways in which the e-bike issue is emblematic of this problem,” Turoff says. “Is this something that a platform like GrubHub should stand up for on behalf of the people working in connection with their platform?”
It certainly leaves delivery platforms facing a difficult question. Should GrubHub step up and tell the de Blasio administration that the crackdown is actually hurting the workers, it might be tacitly claiming some responsibility for the fines.
But perhaps that responsibility is actually theirs to bear. While they do not set worker schedules, platforms like GrubHub facilitate payments to workers, they manage tips, and they set delivery times that customers expect workers to hit. And those customer expectations have already been molded by e-bike usage, which allows cyclists to travel faster. It would not be in GrubHub’s interest to increase projected delivery times to accommodate regular bike usage–as representatives from the New York City government have suggested they should–because they will lose customer loyalty. “E-bikes are a faster, more efficient way to deliver food, and, from that perspective, GrubHub would have an interest in wanting delivery workers to be able to use them,” Turoff says.
“What this really speaks to is that this whole construct that’s been in place for decades–that you’re either an employee or you’re an independent contractor–doesn’t hold up any longer,” Turoff says. “There are factors that suggest that they’re contractors, and factors that suggest that they’re employees, which essentially means they’re neither one nor the other,” he adds. “That’s where the problem is, and that’s where the solution needs to be.”
Should GrubHub and those like it continue to turn a blind eye to the conditions of workers on its platform? (The company did not agree to comment on this article.) It may save itself money, but it will also perpetuate untenable conditions for the people that enable its product’s existence. But should the company decide to close the gap between itself and its workers, listen to their needs, and advocate on behalf of them in the political sphere, they will face financial costs.
What Turoff and advocates would like to see are companies like GrubHub wielding their political power to encourage legislation that supports their workers–be it e-bike legalization in New York, or minimum-wage requirements in other markets to which they must adhere. And they should begin to build out a system whereby they are able to provide vulnerable workers with benefits they need to work and live. For delivery platforms, that might mean adding a surcharge onto orders that would go into a fund–an idea not unlike the National Domestic Workers Alliance is piloting through its program Alia, which lets individual clients of housekeepers pay into a benefits fund for their workers–that they could tap into for things like workers’ compensation. Unwillingness on the part of customers to pay this surcharge should not be an excuse not to add it; caving to objections over costs perpetuates inequality, and profitable companies should take it upon themselves to begin to rectify this dynamic.
The e-bike crackdown is a particularly bad policy, and one that is specific to New York City. But it’s often extreme examples like this that magnify larger problems inherent in the systems that they touch. “What we really need to address with the e-bike issue is a true change in the way that the underlying system works,” Turoff says.