NEW YORK — Latinx adults are more likely to have done gig work in the past year than their Black, Asian, and white counterparts, according to a study by the Pew Research Center published in December. About 30 percent have earned money from an online app platform.
Gustavo Ajche came from Guatemala in 2004 and works as a bicycle food delivery courier in New York City. Three days after his arrival he started delivering pizzas to earn a living and has continued to deliver food ever since.
“I have always worked on the streets,” he tells Latino Rebels.
Gustavo also works in construction to help support his wife who lives with him and his children who attend college in their native country. One studies psychology and the other studies law.
Gustavo has worked with Doordash and Grubhub for five years now, gigs which require him to bike in any weather condition. “You have to go out in extreme cold or extreme heat,” he says.
His wife works as a nanny for a family in Manhattan. At the start of the pandemic, his wife moved with her employers to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a year. Ajche contracted COVID and nursed himself back to health with home remedies.
“The majority of us got sick—it was common in us Latinos,” he says. “We didn’t take a test. We got sick, we got better, and then we went back to work.”
During lockdown, delivery employees continued to work in close contact with others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latinx people had the highest rates of COVID infections and deaths among all ethnicities. Food couriers weren’t afforded rest stops, were not allowed to use the bathrooms at restaurants, and there was no tip transparency.
Gustavo also noticed his base pay decrease. “It went down to $3 to $6 from $11 to $12,” he says.
Gustavo also recalls a recent incident where a stranger verbally assaulted him with racist comments after a delivery. His coworkers say that they have had similar experiences. Alongside discrimination, food couriers are at risk of costly equipment theft and unwanted sexual advances. In September 2020, Ajche slipped on ice and was bedridden through early 2021.
Estella Flores, an immigrant from Venezuela, arrived in 2019 but does not work in a major city. Her primary language is Spanish, and she lives in Indiana with her husband and their two children, one in high school and the other in elementary school.
During her first year in the country, she was a warehouse employee and a restaurant dishwasher, until she found employment doing deliveries. “A relative recommended the job,” she says.
She worked for UberEats and Doordash for two years. With two children in school, the independent contractor positions gave her enough time to work and spend time with her family, allowing her to pick her children up from school and attend meetings.
This flexibility is a main reason Estella has chosen to remain in the gig industry. “I get more pay during the week and I get to set my own schedule,” she says.
Her husband lost his full-time employment at the beginning of the pandemic, and these gigs helped the family make ends meet.
“I worked Doordash by myself to cover monthly costs of the apartment, such as electricity and food,” she explains. “Thankfully I did not get sick. That was the best time to do delivery. People were too afraid to go outside.”
There is no base pay for delivery work in Indiana, though Estella keeps 100 percent of the tips she earns. She gets to pick the orders she wants to deliver, too. “At least life quality is better in Indiana than in New York or Florida,” she says.
She has not had a negative experience and says the job is relatively easy. Her only concern is the cost for gasoline—sometimes her earnings at the end of the week were not enough. “Doordash pays the least,” she says. “It wasn’t worth it.”
Two months ago she started working for Spark Driver, a delivery service for Walmart which according to Estella pays better.
In New York City, Gustavo teamed up with Hildalyn Colón Hernández to run Los Deliveristas Unidos (LDU), one of the first organizations of their kind in the country and the first step towards improving conditions for food delivery workers. Launched by the Workers Justice Project, LDU is “a collective of mostly immigrant app delivery workers” organizing for “basic rights, such as the right to use the bathroom and a minimum wage,” according to the group’s website.
After the Deliveristas protested, the City of New York passed to bills in September 2021, one for a minimum wage for deliveries, and the other for transparency in gratuity that goes into effect at the end of January 2022. Both look to spark a nationwide movement where other states will hopefully pass similar legislation regarding wages and protections.
The next goal, according to Hernández, is to tackle mortality rates.
“Right now companies will send them to where they want to send them, many times at the cost of their lives and accidents,” she explains. “We lost 14 workers last year because of the pressure to be there on time.”
Yesica Balderrama is a journalist and writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared on WNYC, NPR, Latino USA, PEN America, Mental Floss, and others. Twitter: @yesica_bald