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What it’s like to be a delivery worker during the COVID-19 pandemic

Grocery and restaurant deliveries are booming, but working conditions are more hectic and dangerous—for just a bit more cash.

What it’s like to be a delivery worker during the COVID-19 pandemic
Instacart employee Monica Ortega wears gloves while using her cellphone to check orders while picking up groceries from a supermarket for delivery on March 19, 2020 in North Hollywood, California. [Photo: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP]

Bobileigh Daniels of Raleigh, North Carolina, has been delivering groceries for Instacart since July 2019. Most weeks, she can count on earning $400 to $500. But since the coronavirus scare took hold of communities across the U.S., she’s been packing her pickup truck with giant orders for a weekly take that has shot up to about $1,000.

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Sarah Elizabeth Kahler of Atlanta has also seen a windfall in grocery deliveries for Instacart and Shipt. “I made a crap ton of money the past couple of weeks,” she says, also reckoning at least a doubling of pay from each service.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a combination of sober public health measures and panicked personal responses that have remade the gig economy. With offices, bars, clubs, and convention halls closed, ride-sharing traffic has plummeted. But as more people hunker down to work and study at home, grocery and restaurant deliveries have exploded. The delivery business has shifted to a virus-era wartime economy, with orders focused on staples such as food, medicine, and toilet paper hoarding—prompting even Amazon to refocus deliveries to just essential goods. Instacart reports that order volume has grown more than 150% and has announced plans to add 300,000 delivery people, more than doubling its workforce.

Burgeoning demand has pushed pay higher, drivers say. For those delivering groceries, they can be choosier about which orders they take on the app-based dispatch services. And the services often have to raise fees to make the less lucrative orders appealing. “It’s a big difference because you can pick and choose,” says Daniels. The change is a marked turnaround in a business where drivers have long protested falling earnings.

New challenges

Despite the financial gains drivers are reaping, the money is hard won. Grocers and big-box stores such as Costco are packed with shoppers but depleted of product as Americans stockpile supplies in an apocalyptic frenzy. At grocery stores, delivery drivers such as Daniels and Kahler don’t have special access to the stockroom or warehouse. They have to trudge the chaotic aisles like other customers (Instacart even calls its delivery workers “shoppers”).

The atmosphere in stores is very grim and gloomy and panicked and unpleasant.”

Vanessa Bain

“I was having pretty severe anxiety because of the issues with stock,” says Vanessa Bain, an Instacart shopper in Silicon Valley. “The atmosphere in stores is very grim and gloomy and panicked and unpleasant.”

Every out-of-stock product sets off a negotiation process between delivery workers and customers to discuss substitutions. As the number of items in an order goes down, so does the pay, so workers have a big incentive to find compromises. “I’m trying to replace what I can, and so it’s a lot of work texting back and forth with the customer,” says Kahler.

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Customers don’t always appreciate how much work is involved, she says. One especially text-heavy order brought in just a $10 tip. “Their order was between $300 and $400, so they were tipping way less than even 10 percent,” Kahler says. That’s one way in which the gig business hasn’t changed. Squeezed by stingier algorithms, delivery workers have come to rely more on generous tips to make up for shortfalls in pay. But that’s proven a hollow promise. Some apps, such as Instacart’s, feature fairly low default tip amounts (just 5%), and customers aren’t aware of or sympathetic to worker’s dependence on gratuities.


Related: Here’s what you should tip Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart workers


There’s another reason, beyond crowded aisles and empty shelves, for all the stress—people’s fear for their safety and that of their loved ones. Bain stopped driving over a week ago due to concerns about catching and spreading the virus, as did her husband, who also works as an Instacart shopper. The couple has a 12-year-old child and also cares for Bain’s grandparents, and they don’t want to risk spreading the infection. “It’s dangerous work. It’s work that is done primarily by the people who can afford a medical emergency the least,” Bain says.

I’ve got hand sanitizer, which half the time I forget to use.”

Sarah Elizabeth Kahler

Daniels has been following a virus safety protocol for weeks. She wears surgical gloves, strives to maintain distance from other shoppers in the store aisles, and regularly disinfects her truck. But Daniels is more diligent than most. “I’ve got hand sanitizer, which half the time I forget to use,” Kahler confesses.

Just like all Americans, most gig workers can’t get their hands on sanitizer, gloves, disinfectant wipes, and other safety supplies in today’s pandemic-panicked economy. Even spending much of their time in stores doesn’t greatly improve the chances of getting items that are in high demand—although sometimes they get lucky. “We were able to grab a couple of boxes of gloves from Costco when they happened to get restocked,” Bain says. “Like just on a very random day, they happened to have a few boxes out.”

Booming meal deliveries

Many restaurant delivery workers are also seeing a bonanza, says driver Jake Kronborg of Phoenix, Arizona. Along with making deliveries for services such as DoorDash and Grubhub, Kronborg also reports on the industry through educational videos and consults with drivers under the moniker Gig Coach Jake. “My area normally would be slower during lunchtime because it’s a lot more homes and families and not as many businesses,” Kronborg says. “That’s completely flipped now. Lunchtime is crazy busy because more people are at home and their kids are at home.” He says he is also making many more deliveries to older people who would normally be eating out for lunch and dinner.

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But restaurant delivery has its own hassles and perils, and big earnings are not a sure thing, says Kronborg. “A lot of restaurants are not only shutting their dining rooms, but they’re decreasing staff to as little as one cook,” he says. That can lead to wait times of an hour for an order that might only pay $6 or $7.

Still, Kronborg would rather see an empty restaurant than a packed one, like he encountered at a local Cheesecake Factory last week. “They’re choosing profits over people by keeping the restaurant fully open, fully crammed, just spreading this virus,” Kronborg says.

I’ve seen a lot of grateful people, and I’ve seen higher tips than usual.”

Jake Kronborg

Like Daniels, Kronborg takes extensive safety measures, including wearing a mask and gloves and regularly applying hand sanitizer. He also urges everyone to take advantage of the “no-contact” options that most delivery services offer, in which the driver leaves the goods at the door and the app alerts the customer to pick them up.

Kronborg says he sees a wide range of customer appreciation for the new challenges of his work. “You have people that are taking advantage of it. They’re using the delivery service to get their convenience, but they’re not tipping,” he says. “But I’ve seen a lot of grateful people, and I’ve seen higher tips than usual.”

The ride-share crash

Risks are even higher, and rewards much lower, in the ride-share business. Kristin Lipp, who drives for Lyft and Uber in the Portland, Oregon, area, says she got just four fares during a seven-hour shift last Friday. Until about a week ago, she could count on completing three fares per hour, picking up a new request as soon as she finishes her current ride. “Now it’s to the point where you might as well stay home or find another job,” Lipp says. “I’ve got my vehicle loan coming up soon, and I’m making like $20 a day. That’s not going to work.” (She did recount two random acts of kindness, however, in which riders tipped her $20 each.)

“What we have been hearing from drivers is that they’ve actually taken a huge hit on the demand side,” says Harry Campbell, a driver who’s covered the gig industry extensively through a website and other media under the title the Rideshare Guy. Campbell surveyed about 200 drivers between March 13 and 16 and found sobering results, with 80% reporting a drop-off in business. This was before the stay-at-home orders that have since taken hold in states including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

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Now it’s to the point where you might as well stay home or find another job.”

Kristin Lipp

The risk-reward ratio is especially high for ride-share drivers. While delivery workers transport bags that other people have touched, taxis transport people themselves, in tight quarters that make social distancing impossible. Thirty-nine percent of drivers surveyed said that they were driving less for fear of the virus, and 24% have completely stopped. Lipp ultimately decided to leave ride-sharing for both financial and health reasons and shift to deliveries.

Meanwhile, 29% of ride-share drivers were contemplating a shift to the booming restaurant delivery business, which has somewhat lower risk and much higher demand lately. Twenty-three percent said they were already doing a mix of ride-share and food delivery work. Uber Eats is the easiest service to transition to, since it involves pressing just a few buttons in the app for people who already drive passengers for Uber. DoorDash and Postmates were the next most popular services for drivers in the survey.

But it’s not an even tradeoff, says Campbell. “In general, ride-share has always paid more than food delivery,” he says. “Even though, for drivers switching to delivery, it’s better than nothing, it’s not as much [money] as what they’re used to, for sure.”

Both Campbell and Kronborg expect the food delivery business to continue booming as more and more Americans choose to, or are forced to, stay at home. “You have bartenders out of work, servers are out of work. A lot of people are out of work right now,” Kronborg says. “I highly suggest to anyone that’s out of work to take advantage of gig work right now.”

Only a relative boon

But even in these busiest times, delivery gig work is not a bonanza. As an example, Kronborg says that the new lunchtime rush pushed his midday earnings from the usual $60 to about $100. It’s a big percentage increase, but still not a lot in absolute terms—and that’s for a driver who is highly focused on maximizing earnings on these platforms, and even runs a side business advising others how to do so as well.

“Workers are making somewhat better money, which feels like a lot, but the risks are still incredibly high,” Bain says.

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What she and other gig workers ask is that customers show appreciation for the extra toil and danger in providing the groceries, meals, or transport that keep the country functioning. That starts with not taking frustrations out on them because toilet paper is out of stock at Costco or the brand of chicken you asked for isn’t available.

But gig workers also deserve a little extra in gratuities, says Campbell. If you generally pick the middle amount in an app, go for the highest percentage in these times of crisis, he advises. Or if you usually tip $2 on a ride or delivery, consider upping it to $3 or $4. “Anyone who’s in the service industry right now, on the front lines, I think deserves a little bit extra as they’re out there risking life and limb,” he says.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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