NYC's Delivery Drivers Want Employee Status, and Nothing Less

App-based workers have struggled to secure stronger labor protections. A new state bill could set them back years.

Luis Feliz Leon

Thousands of delivery workers for app-based businesses, organized by Los Deliveristas Unidos (“Deliveristas United”), march in New York on April 21. Their demands include basic needs like ending wage theft and access to bathrooms. As independent contractors, the workers cannot currently unionize. PHOTO BY SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES

NEW YORK— A controversial new bill in the New York state legislature would offer gig workers limited rights to collectively bargain with their employers” — without reclassifying the workers as actual employees.” The bill comes after a wave of organizing by delivery drivers in New York City, who have taken to the streets to demand better working conditions.

Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of mostly Latino delivery drivers in New York City working for app-based platforms like Uber Eats, GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and Relay, came out against the bill May 25.

This legislation is a perfect example of how the applications are trying to divide us and take away our power and our voice on the streets,” said Deliverista Jonán Mancilla. We will keep fighting. Let’s not let these applications divide us.”

The so-called gig worker union bill was initially backed by the New York State AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union and the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild — but support is faltering. Advocates now say the bill, which Uber, Lyft, and other gig work companies have been negotiating with state legislators and labor leaders for months, would actually erode the power of gig workers and codify their non-employee status, leaving them unprotected by minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws.

In April, a 2,000-strong, mostly Latino cavalcade rode from Times Square to Foley Square in the pouring rain to call for stronger worker protections, with food coolers strapped to their backs and the flags of Mexico and Guatemala waving from their electric bikes or draped around their necks. Their demands included restroom access and protections against wage theft, arbitrary deactivation (i.e., getting kicked off the delivery apps) and assault. 

The proposed bill would kneecap this surge in organizing, following a similar pattern in Massachusetts, Connecticut and California. It would forego workers’ right to picketing, strikes, slowdowns, or boycotts,” and prohibit workers from disparaging the reputation of the company they work for. In essence, demonstrations like Los Deliveristas’ April 21 march would likely be prohibited under the legislation.

After news of the bill broke on May 17, Los Deliveristas released a statement saying it is is opposed to any legislative proposal that is pre-negotiated without delivery workers’ input, and that directly impacts our industry, work conditions, and the well-being of our families.”

Kyle Bragg, president of the area branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 32BJ, came out against any proposal that erodes workers’ bargaining power, saying, workers should at minimum maintain gains made by workers at the local level.” 

Other opponents of the bill include the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, representing ride-hailing and yellow cab drivers, immigrant worker advocacy groups Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the Freelance Solidarity Project, a union of digital media workers. In a joint statement, the groups said the bill would undermine the current efforts of Los Deliveristas Unidos (LDU) to fight for better working conditions at the NYC level, such as the right to use bathrooms, transparency from the apps, and better pay.”

Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen walked back his support for the bill, claiming to now stand with the workers” opposed to the legislation. 

The recent surge in delivery driver organizing has been energized by Covid-19. Early in the pandemic, as legions of office workers hunkered down at home, the ranks of delivery workers swelled with increased demand for delivery app platforms like Uber Eats, GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and Relay. An estimated 50,000 to 80,000 delivery workers zip around the city, putting in grueling hours under dangerous conditions for meager wages. Those wages are largely opaque because each app has its own pay structure, but according to The City, pay averages between $300 and $800 a week for a daily 12-hour schedule. Much of that money relies on tips.

Food delivery tech companies rake in billions of dollars at the expense of this hyper-exploited, largely immigrant workforce. Yet workers lack even the minimum wage protections held by Uber and Lyft drivers, guaranteed by a 2018 New York City ordinance. 

The genesis of the Deliveristas was a Facebook group created early in the pandemic for drivers from the platform Relay. The group was started by a Mexican couple, Jonán Mancilla and Lucy Villano, but soon shed its emphasis on workers from Mexico and was renamed Los Deliveristas Unidos.

By summer 2020, Worker’s Justice Project—a Brooklyn-based workers’ center — had started supporting the Deliveristas’ self-organization. Every single worker was agitated,” says Ligia Guallpa, co-executive director of Worker’s Justice Project. They were angry and they were desperate because things were getting worse. It was months of inhumanity.”

Somebody has to hear us,’ ” Guallpa remembers the workers telling her. The apps were having full control of their lives.”

The first Deliveristas march, in October 2020, saw hundreds of delivery drivers airing grievances similar to those of the April 2021 rally. Access to restrooms has been a perennial complaint, for example. Delivery worker Mamadou Kokeina, from Mali, says he is forced to pee between parked cars because restaurants prohibit him from using their restrooms. He has worked for Seamless, GrubHub, Uber Eats and DoorDash since 2015.

The Deliveristas notched their first victory in December 2020 when DoorDash called for a meeting in response to negative publicity. DoorDash agreed to offer delivery workers access to about 200 bathrooms in its partner restaurants throughout the city — though that number is arguably low, considering DoorDash boasts it provides services for 4,911 local restaurants.

Another frequent demand is for police to better protect delivery drivers from robberies and murders — a major focus of another Facebook group, El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana (“Diary of the Big Apple Deliveryboys”).

Assaults on delivery workers are part of a national trend. In March, Francisco Villalva, a 29-year-old delivery worker, was fatally shot in East Harlem during an attempted robbery. I don’t want to cry over the death of one more brother or friend,” says delivery worker Gustavo Ajche, from Guatemala, who has lived in New York for 18 years. The demand for more policing is at odds with the movements to defund and decrease policing, but shared among many Deliveristas.

In the absence of police response, the Deliveristas and the Deliveryboys have developed their own alternative to policing. On WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups, fellow drivers report thefts and assaults. Scroll through any of their Facebook pages and you will find images of stolen bikes or accidents.

[When] they realized that the police don’t come, that led many to join the WhatsApp and Telegram groups, because they know [other delivery drivers] will come,” says delivery worker Jonán Mancilla.

After the April demonstration, the New York City Council introduced a package of five bills to address some of the demands. One bill fines restaurants that deny drivers bathroom access. Another establishes minimum pay per trip (as Uber and Lyft drivers have). Another allows drivers to set their own routes.

This is much more than just fighting for basic rights for food delivery workers,” Guallpa says. Tech companies are looking to rewrite every single labor law and redefine who’s a worker.

They’re building a whole new economy. They’re using their power to define who gets protections and who doesn’t.”

Beyond those five measures, the Deliveristas have their sights on employee recognition and a proper union — and they now have the backing of the largest service union in the city, SEIU 32BJ. Moving forward largely depends upon passing the PRO Act, the sweeping federal labor reform that would make it more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors.

The Deliveristas are also reaching out to West African and Asian workers, with materials printed by the Worker’s Justice Project in different languages. The struggle I share with [the Deliveristas] is the same struggle of every delivery person,” says Kokeina.

They also share common fears. We are scared,” Kokeina says of the West African community. We are immigrants without legal status. I’ve been talking to my African friends to join us, so we can win this fight together.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the PRO Act would reclassify gig workers as employees. 

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Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

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