By Haseena Manek
Since Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced restaurants would stay open for takeout and delivery during the COVID19 pandemic, bicycle couriers have ben deemed “essential” workers.
Already a dangerous job, bicycle couriers working for food delivery apps like Foodora, Uber Eats, Doordash and Skip the Dishes have no sick leave, no health insurance. Now they’re part of a newly front line fleet of workers whose job helps people stay at home, and therefore contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Rankandfile.ca spoke with two Toronto couriers about what it’s like to work at this time. Jennifer Scott has been a bike courier for three and a half years and works for Foodora, DoorDash, Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes. Brice Sopher, who works for Foodora and Uber Eats, has been a courier for five years.
“It’s kind of eerie being out and there not being anyone else,” says Scott. “Or going into restaurants where the tables and the chairs are either blocked off or put away.”
“I’m definitely worried,” Sopher said. “I’m worried about myself, obviously, I’m worried about contracting it. And, I’m not so worried about [myself], I have some kind of maybe misplaced confidence that I’ll be okay. But I’m worried to spread it to other people that would be more at risk than I am to have severe symptoms and whose life may be put at risk.”
Both Scott and Sopher have a list of precautions they keep to to ensure their own safety as well as the safety of the restaurant staff and customers they see every day.
Precautions include frequent hand-washing and wearing gloves and social distancing. Hand sanitizer is hard to get a hold of, so Scott reports rationing it and using it carefully. Couriers use a contactless delivery method, leaving food outside doors to avoid interactions with customers and doing the same when picking up orders from restaurant staff.
Since many public spaces are now closed to the public, including restaurants, Scott said it’s difficult to find a place to use the washrooms, fill up a water bottle, and even eat her own meals during a shift. As a result, Scott is often forced to forego washroom breaks and filling up her water bottle. She says she eats in parks, or on the curb.
“I went into a couple of places where they did let me use the washroom and so when I thought I had that opportunity, I just took it and tried not to think about it.”
While grocery stores have increased wages by $2/hour, Foodora couriers continue to be paid the same flat fee rate of $4.50 per order and an additional $1 per kilometre between the restaurant and customer.
“I think we’re starting to see what work really has value, you know, in this type of situation,” says Sopher. “It’s nice to think of myself as essential, but I really wish that the working conditions that we were given, reflected that.”
Foodora delivery workers in Toronto are currently involved in a union drive to ensure better working conditions and benefits. While Foodora has COVID-19 health and safety information for customers on their website, Scott says guidelines for workers are limited.
“Information is vague,” she told Rankandfile.ca. “It’s mostly just asking that you not come to work if you’re sick, asking that you abide by whatever health and safety measures are being talked about where you live, so you know, the hand washing, sanitizing like that kind of thing. There isn’t really much more to it than that.”
In February, Foodora workers celebrated a huge victory in the fight for unionization. The Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that Foodora couriers are “dependent contractors”, a key decision that made the workers eligible to unionize.
“It’s first decision we’ve seen on gig workers in Ontario, and I think in all of Canada,” says Liisa Schofield of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the union which Foodora workers are organizing with. “That mis-classification of workers as independent contractors is the bedrock of gig employers. And it’s how they’re making their profit. It’s what they bank on, so to be able to get a decision that says ‘no, these workers are dependent on the company, and the company has a responsibility to them,’ is really flying in the face of the logic of gig employers.”
It sets an important precedent for all gig workers, says Schofield, including Uber Black drivers who are currently organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers.
“Our company’s worked very hard to ensure that we do not have access to employment rights and workers rights,” says Scott, of the ongoing unionization process. “And with Foodora, we see how hard they’re prepared to fight us. And so then, you know, being told well, you’ll still work through this. Who knows what all of this will be right? I think that comes with an incredible amount of frustration, and it’s very intense.”
Schofield says the next step in the union certification process is dealing with the employee list. “We’re confident we have enough of a percentage of cards but they of course added hundreds and hundreds of names on onto their employee list, [with] people we know don’t work for the company.”
“And so we have to first get those names recognized, that they don’t actually work for the company, remove them, then we get to open the ballot box.”
Precarious but essential
Since the emergency measures in response to COVID19 have come in effect in Ontario, bike couriers are in a precarious position: as workers in a dangerous job who normally have no health benefits, but who ended up on the front line in a global health crisis.
“I don’t have any sick days, that’s for sure,” said Sopher. “I know that it’s helping people stay at home, but at least in my case, it’s not. And I’m putting myself at risk and putting my partner potentially at risk. I’m putting other people that I inadvertently come in contact with at risk, but I’m forced to work because if I don’t, then I don’t really have any guarantees of any other source of income.”
“There will be no paid sick leave when we get sick,” says Scott. “And I mean, to me, it seems like realistically, if we all work, some of us will get sick.”
According to Schofield, CUPW is also pushing for COVID19-specific benefits, including safety equipment for couriers, and a fund that would allow couriers to stop working if they need to.
“And if we are somebody who doesn’t qualify for the emergency benefits,” concludes Scott, “If we are somebody whose landlord is not sympathetic and will not delay a rent payment. I can’t think of a word that is big enough to describe how immense that problem is.”
Credit for feature image: David Venson/Instagram