New York, NY – The Sidney Hillman Foundation, which honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good, has recognized Kellen Browning of the New York Times for her in-depth article documenting what the working life is like for app delivery drivers in Los Angeles.
Browning won the May Sidney Award for her April 9 story “$388 in Sushi. Just a $20 Tip: The Brutal Math of Uber Eats and DoorDash”.
The article tells it like it is by interviewing a number of drivers, some afraid to use their last name for fear of reprisals, to find the real story of the working life of those who were hailed as pandemic heroes for putting themselves at risk but are now faced with declining tips and increased competition.
Drivers cannot see the amount of a promised tip higher than eight dollars, only the price of the order when they accept the delivery on their app, and there are numerous accounts of pricey deliveries in wealthy neighborhoods being barely rewarded. In fact promised tips can be rescinded. No tips from the mega-wealthy in their gated mansions or even from everyday folk abound. There are outrageous accounts such as one driver who packed up five bags of groceries at upscale store Erewhon only to receive $5. And the same driver, Stanley Huang, who moved to the U.S. from the Chinese province of Hunan four years ago, once spent two hours taking a $2,500 order of tacos to a music studio, only to receive $50.00. He began working the job because his English skills are limited.
Most of the drivers huddle in specific places, often unsavory, where they can get the best reception for the apps on their phones. A popular place is an alley in the Pacific Palisades where drivers compete for “parking spaces” at the same time trying to hold their phone in the exact best spot to receive delivery requests from nearby restaurants. Their goal: to beat out everyone else around them by getting the first notification and snagging the gig.
The stress of that type of constant competition, combined with low wages – drivers say Uber or Doordash pay about $3.50 per order no matter its size, and about $1.00 per mile – are driving some to the breaking point. They live in fear of making a mistake or getting a complaint from a customer. Another factor is the rise of contactless delivery, which often results in a lower or no tip, since when you don’t see someone who is working for you, it’s easier to stiff them.
The only other assistance some drivers get from the companies they work for came about because of the passage in 2020 of Proposition 22, which gave drivers limited benefits, but would not allow them to be classified as employees. It also promised drivers 120 percent of California’s hourly minimum wage. If the driver earns less than that amount, they are supposed to receive a twice monthly payment from the gig platform. However, they are paid for an extremely small amount of hours, as they only are compensated for the time between accepting a delivery and delivering it, not for the hours spent waiting during their work day.
One driver, Vitalii Kravchenko, a Russian immigrant who with his wife had come to America on a tourist Visa and then applied for political asylum, texted the journalist that “Delivery became very awful.” He has had to start driving for Uber to make ends meet.
The Biden administration has unveiled a proposal that would make it easier for gig workers – who number in the millions – to be classified as employees rather than as contractors. Labor activists have been waiting for this move for a long time. Certain benefits and protections are required to be offered by companies to employees, but not to contractors, such as these app drivers. If the proposal comes to pass, the drivers would get benefits such as a minimum wage, overtime, and contributions to unemployment insurance, among others.
Until that happens, these drivers who were once “heroes” to the public are simply part of the millions of workers who are not getting what is due them.