App-based delivery workers face underpayment, violence, and unsanitary conditions, study finds

ITHACA, N.Y. — App-based delivery workers for platforms like UBER Eats and DoorDash operating in New York City are struggling through a long list of unreasonable job conditions, according to a new report. Researchers from Cornell University conclude these food delivery workers, which many in the city considered an essential lifeline throughout the pandemic, routinely encounter nonpayment or underpayment, unsafe working conditions, and the increased threat of violence.

Conducted by the Los Deliveristas/Worker’s Justice Project and the ILR School’s Worker Institute at Cornell, this research paints an unsettling picture of day-to-day life as an app-based delivery worker.

“New York City’s food delivery workers risk their lives to bring hot, fresh meals to the doors of thousands every day,” says Ileen A. DeVault, professor of labor history at the ILR School and academic director of The Worker Institute, in a university release.

“This report reveals the harrowing world these workers live in. They face danger everywhere – on the busy streets, in constant exposure to health threats, through low wages that trap their families in poverty, and through discrimination and unfair treatment by many ‘employers,’ restaurant owners and customers,” she continues. “This report is a starting place for desperately needed reform.”

Do delivery workers actually work for these companies?

This work serves to emphasize just how challenging it is for workers in the “digital gig economy” to attain labor protections provided to more traditional employees. These app-based delivery workers unfortunately fall into “gray areas or outright gaps of existing legal frameworks” when it comes to employee classifications and protections. As a result, both their employment status and their official “relationship” with the apps they work for remain unregulated.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers were already dealing with unenviable job conditions. Since 2020, though, the situation has worsened considerably. Over four in 10 workers in the survey (42%) told researchers they’ve experienced either nonpayment or underpayment.

A typical day in the life of an app-based delivery worker consists of moving from one restaurant and customer’s doorstep to the next. Consequently, these workers don’t have access to basic safeguards and sanitary conditions. Just under half (49%) say they’ve been in an accident or crash while working. Among that group, 75 percent had to pay for their medical costs out of pocket.

Victims of New York’s rising crime rate

Another serious yet often overlooked worry for these workers is physical violence. Before COVID, delivery workers commonly had their bikes and electric vehicles stolen while on the job, but it’s become even more prevalent during the pandemic. Most workers in the survey (54%) said their bike had been stolen at some point and about 30 percent of that group was physically assaulted during the robbery.

Researchers reached these findings by surveying 500 app-based couriers operating in New York City, as well as additional focus groups and one-on-one interviews with delivery workers.

The complete findings appear in the report “Essential but Unprotected.”