On any given day during the lull between lunch and dinner, scores of food delivery workers gather in parks throughout Manhattan for pick-up games of soccer.
For most, it’s the only time they can relax after traversing the streets of the city on their electric bikes all day. But as the temperature drops, their soccer games take on a second purpose, as a way to stay warm.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the regular soccer game at Lion’s Gate Field on the Lower East Side drew about 100 as app delivery worker crews that claim turf in different sections of Manhattan flocked for a socially distant holiday dinner in between penalty kicks.
As Sergio Ajche walked around the field bearing a basket with fresh, steaming tortillas, handing them out to the guys huddled along the fence, a refrain echoed repeatedly from the workers to observers from THE CITY:
“Vayan a comer.” “¿Por qué no están comiendo?” “¿No tienen hambre?” in the tones of a concerned mother asking: “Why aren’t you eating?”
Thousands of miles away from their native Guatemala and Mexico, this group of mostly men in their twenties left their lands in search for a better future. They’ve settled in the city, delivering bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches to the hung over, supplying pizza and satisfying late-night cravings to legions of New Yorkers.
Throughout the pandemic they’ve helped prop up ailing restaurants, delivering food to hospital employees and home-bound workers tethered to Zoom.
The deliveristas at the field, many of whom share Maya roots and live in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, have gelled in an informal network within a booming delivery industry that’s attracted diverse waves of largely immigrant workers at a time when jobs are hard to find.
These workers, fed up with the grueling hours amid the pandemic and dismal treatment they say they receive at the hands of delivery apps, are acting on their longings for increased protections and better pay.
“We want the city to finally treat us like the essential workers we are,” Williams Sian, a delivery worker in Midtown, said in Spanish. “When the city was shut down, we were the ones running the restaurants, we were carrying that industry on our backs.”
“Just you watch,” he said. “With time, this is going to be a massive movement.”
‘They Treat Us Like We’re Insects’
Before the pandemic hit New York in March, issues with restaurants and delivery apps had been percolating, according to the workers.
Routes were routinely becoming longer and work hours were dwindling. Workers became concerned they may not be receiving tips in full, and they complained of poor treatment by the apps and restaurant employees.
COVID-19 poured gasoline on the embers.
Samuel García, 45, recalls riding through the streets of Manhattan making deliveries on his e-bike in the spring with no cars on the street, an eerie, once unimaginable sight.
Like many in his line of work, he got sick with some sort of flu in late February. He’s still unclear whether it was coronavirus.
New Yorkers were urged to stay home to prevent the virus from spreading. A state mandate closed indoor dining at restaurants, allowing them to operate for takeout or delivery only. As restaurants struggled, city and state officials urged the public to support their local eateries by ordering from them.
But the delivery workers who are propping up the restaurant industry say they don’t have any support from the city or the apps they work for, like DoorDash where customers use the app to place orders from restaurants, or Relay, which connects restaurants to couriers.
“We work for the restaurants,” said Sian, who is 28. “We’re what’s driving their income right now. But they discriminate against us. We can’t use their bathroom.
“They cast us aside and ignore us,” he added. “They scream at us. They treat us like we’re insects.”
Suits and Settlements
At the popular brunch spot Jack’s Wife Freda in Soho, Ajche alleges, a manager on two occasions berated him for entering the restaurant to pick up an order.
Ajche also contends the manager prohibited him from parking his bike outside — a growing trend among restaurants throughout the city, workers say.
Jack’s Wife Freda did not respond to a request for comment.
Restaurants are also increasingly not providing receipts with the orders, leaving delivery people unaware whether a customer tipped or how much, the workers said.
Instead they have to rely on the app companies, something they’re wary of after several workers saw order receipts and realized they were receiving a fraction of tips.
A spokesperson for Relay, a company that mostly operates in New York and which many of the couriers THE CITY spoke to rely on, said “any allegation of Relay withholding tips is categorically false.”
“Relay pays 100% of the tips to couriers and asks that restaurants always include the full receipt on each order,” said the spokesperson, Julie Richter. “Relay looks into any discrepancies to ensure couriers are paid what they’ve earned.”
Relay has been subject of complaints and lawsuits for stiffing workers of their pay. According to the New York Post, a 2016 lawsuit filed by six app workers claiming they were underpaid was settled out of court.
Two Relay workers filed a class action lawsuit against the company in 2017 over allegations of diverted tips and lack of overtime pay. The duo reached a $100,000 settlement with the company, in which Relay admitted no liability and the pair of couriers were barred from working for the company and speaking publicly about the matter.
Organizing Efforts Eyed
The workers have staged at least one protest and have met with lawmakers about their plight with the e-commerce and restaurant industries, but they are still discussing the main cause over which to unite.
On the top of their list is securing a living wage; for tech companies to recognize them as employees; getting access to bathrooms and safe waiting areas; and receiving support from local law enforcement to clamp down on robberies and muggings.
Municipal and state lawmakers might be sympathetic to granting modest victories to local delivery workers, said Queens College labor historian Joshua Freeman, despite setbacks elsewhere such as the recent victory of Proposition 22 in California, which allows gig economy companies to continue recognizing their drivers as independent contractors.
The Legislature’s new Democratic supermajority and public pressure could tip in favor of the couriers, he noted.
“I can imagine if you see this group align with other groups,” such as for-hire vehicle drivers, “you might win some stuff without necessarily having some kind of existential, categorical change,” he said.
Drivers for Uber, Lyft and other for-hire apps have been frustrated so far in efforts to forge collective bargaining agreements with the platforms. But in New York, organizing efforts have won some improvements, such as unemployment benefits.
Cost of Living
When Sian first started working for Relay about two years ago, his delivery routes usually spanned 10 to 15 blocks, a manageable distance on a standard bike. Now he zig-zags up to 70 blocks on a single run, after Relay gradually expanded the distance the restaurants it works with may deliver to.
The grueling treks make e-bikes “practically an obligation” for delivery workers to purchase, he said.
The e-bikes don’t come cheap, especially on a delivery courier’s income, which ranges from $300 to $800 a week for those who work 12-hour days, seven days a week.
Deliveristas typically buy their e-bikes new so as not to feed into the black market of two-wheelers that have been stolen from their colleagues.
“If you buy a used bike, you’re collaborating with thieves,” explained Ajche.
A new e-bike usually runs $1,800. That’s just the beginning of the expenses.
Lights have to be added to make the workers more visible at night. Racks are retrofitted to the front and back to make carrying and stacking food easier.
In addition, most delivery workers purchase a spare $600 battery to swap out once their bikes eventually run out of energy during the day. Chains and locks to prevent the bikes from being stolen are musts.
App-branded thermal bags are also an unofficial requirement for the job to keep food hot. Some restaurants refuse to give deliveries to workers who don’t have the insulated bags, explained Jonán Huerta, a delivery worker from Washington Heights.
A Relay-branded insulated backpack costs between $40 to $60, according to the workers. A similar insulated backpack from Amazon set Huerta back $120.
Since most of the workers live outside of Manhattan, they store and charge their e-bikes at garages throughout the city for $125 a month.
All told, the cost of a road-ready e-bike equipped to make deliveries costs about $3,000.
A Crowded Market
Although the apps have gained popularity among hungry New Yorkers, workers say they are seeing their hours diminished as the volume of work and pressure have intensified.
The recent surge of unemployment caused by the pandemic also means a more diverse group of people are entering the delivery gig economy, workers said. Now it’s not uncommon to see female couriers and even white app delivery workers, the deliveristas said. Among relatively new deliveristas is Huerta’s wife, Luciana, who began the gig a year ago.
While the pay structures are largely a mystery to the public, couriers in Manhattan say that DoorDash pays roughly $4 a delivery, plus tips. According to the company, “Dashers” are paid between $2 and $10 a delivery depending on several factors, including time and distance.
“Nationally, Dashers earn over $22 per hour they’re on a job, including tips — and even more than that in New York City,” said Campbell Matthews, a company spokesperson.
Meanwhile, workers say Relay pays them $11 an hour, plus tips. But hours, they note, have been cut from 38 to 40 a week, to around 33.
Relay says it had to reduce the number of hours across the board because of the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated restaurants in New York City, particularly in Manhattan, where many offices remain closed and where Relay primarily operates. In order to adapt to this shift in volume and to allow as many couriers to work on the platform, Relay reduced how many hours couriers could log in,” said Richter.
Delivery workers sometimes have mere minutes to deliver meals to their destination after being picked up at a restaurant before they’re penalized by consumers or the apps, who downgrade their rating or freeze them out of the app.
Sometimes the food isn’t ready by the time they pick it up or the wrong items are included in the order. The workers say they absorb the blame.
“It’s abuse at a distance,” said Huerta, who is 32.
DoorDash says it’s “actively engaging with community groups on ways to continue supporting New York workers, including our Dasher community, and are eager to hear their feedback on how we can best serve their needs.”
Deliveristas argue that the models promote unsafe practices, where speed takes precedence over their safety on the streets.
Last month, 42-year-old Ernesto Guzmán was killed in a hit-and-run while delivering pizza on the Upper East Side. In Astoria, delivery worker Alfredo Cabrera Liconia, 35, was killed after being run over by a truck.
Workers say many accidents and injuries go unreported, due to distrust of the NYPD and fears of deportation.
“When you have an accident, the first thing Relay asks is ‘Is the food OK?’” said Sian. “Is a meal worth $10 or $15 worth more than the life of a person?”
Workers like Sian often seek out the support they don’t receive from the delivery apps from each other, in WhatsApp groups.
That’s where they settle which “crews” deliver in different city neighborhoods, and report which restaurants let them use the bathroom. They also share information about open parks where they can safely wait for the next delivery and report rumored or confirmed robberies.
Ajche created the WhatsApp group for the downtown Manhattan crew about a year ago, when he returned to working as a delivery courier again after a brief stint working construction and found himself navigating the “new form” of the job with delivery apps.
He found a business transformed for the worse.
“Back in the day, I was employed by a restaurant. I had a boss, and I had certain rights, I could use the bathroom and I had fixed shifts,” he explained in Spanish. “Now, that’s all gone.”
He created the WhatsApp group because he thought it was a sensible way for the other couriers delivering in the area — all Guatemalan, like him — to watch out for each other.
The crews working the Upper West Side, Midtown and downtown Manhattan eventually merged into a group that has ballooned to over 200 members. That includes a newer, smaller band of couriers from Mexico who typically deliver on the Upper West Side.
The sophisticated communication network impressed Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the organizing group Workers Justice Project, who began advising the workers on their labor push over the summer.
“They’ve put in a ton of the work already, when we began working together they were already fired up politically, with a list of demands and everything,” she said. “It’s almost, like, they’re already organized.”
The pre-Thanksgiving supper had the air of an outdoor family gathering — and indeed, many of the men are related.
About a dozen of the workers at Lion’s Gate Field that afternoon were from Aztec Mixteca tribes in Mexico, and some 90 others are Maya people from the tierra fría of the midwestern highlands of Guatemala. Many of the workers are Maya K’iche’ people from Chimente, a village in the department of Totonicapán, near the heart of the country.
By all accounts, the first of the deliveristas from Chimente to have settled in Brooklyn was Ajche himself.
The stocky, youthful 37-year-old arrived in New York in 2004 from Chimente, where he worked as a leather goods artisan and manufacturer. He learned the ropes delivering pies for a pizza restaurant in downtown Manhattan, back when employment by restaurants was the norm, for over 10 years.
As is common in most immigrant groups, Ajche, who is K’iche’, was followed by cousins, relatives and friends, who in turn brought their own.
That includes Sian, who is married to Ajche’s cousin and also lives in Bensonhurst, and García, a relative of Ajche who lives in The Bronx.
Several couriers at the Thanksgiving potluck joked that the raffle of some 20 turkeys was rigged because members of the same family kept winning.
“We are pretty clannish, we like to stay close together,” Ajche said with a laugh. “That’s how we work.”
The K’iche’, like many Maya tribes, are deeply rooted in community. The persecution of Maya people in Guatemala culminated in a lengthy, bloody civil war that ended in 1996 and was deemed a genocide.
The majority of the deliveristas are young men in their 20s, born during the final years of the conflict and after.
Ajche’s extended family is a fraction of the network of Maya deliveristas living and working in New York City. By their own estimates, roughly 200 of them have made their home in Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, Brooklyn, alone, in an area known as “Pequeña Guate,” or little Guatemala.
That group is purposely tight-knit, which they’ve found to be effective during times when they were the only ones who had one another’s back.
In virtual conversations, they label themselves as “Los Deliveristas Unidos” — the United Delivery Workers.
While Ajche is surrounded by relatives in Brooklyn, his wife and two children live in Guatemala. His modest earnings go further there, and he’s able to support his family.
His son and daughter are college students in Guatemala City, studying architecture and psychology respectively, he noted with a twinge of paternal pride.
“That’s why I go through all this trouble,” he said. “My goal is for them to have the opportunities and education that I didn’t have.”
A Slap in the Face
Workers’ frustrations with the delivery apps and restaurant industry, exacerbated by the pandemic, have been mounting for months.
Tensions culminated in a City Hall rally on Oct. 15 where hundreds of workers aired their grievances.
The workers read a lengthy list of demands, including calling on municipal officials to force restaurants to let workers use their bathrooms and to create spaces where they can wait safely in between deliveries.
They also charged that police often turn a blind eye to their safety.
“It’s a slap in the face,” Ajche told the crowd at the mid-October rally. “The city keeps saying we’re essential workers, and we want them to act like it and protect us.”
Earlier that month, a worker was mugged at gunpoint and stripped of his $3,000 e-bike at Verdi Square on the Upper West Side while awaiting his next delivery.
The 20th Precinct officer who responded to the complaint allegedly told the worker that the department could not do anything about the robbery “because of budget cuts to the NYPD,” said Guallpa, who helped organize the rally.
In a scene captured on video, dozens of workers biked to the 20th precinct in reaction to that incident to complain about a recent bout of muggings in the neighborhood. After a few minutes of telling the workers that the best way to get help is to call 911, an officer invited them to meet with the precinct captain.
In another incident, a worker named Rodrigo had his e-bike stolen while he made a home delivery. Although the bike had a GPS that he tracked with precision, a police officer “refused” to retrieve it, he said.
“I can’t help but feel that they treat us poorly simply because we’re Latinos, because of the way we look,” an outraged Sian said in an interview. “It’s hopeless.”
‘We are a Silent Majority’
Instead, the workers have come to rely on each other for safety, often using the WhatsApp group as a lifeline.
When Sian’s cousin, who also delivers in Midtown, had his bike stolen while on the job near Rockefeller Center, he immediately reported it in the WhatsApp group. Sian and several other workers in the area “dropped everything we were doing” and retrieved the bike.
They also shared information about the Oct. 15 rally via WhatsApp and spread the news to their other networks, a tactic that proved to be effective.
That afternoon, most of the core 200 workers walked off the job and biked down Broadway from Verdi Square and brought their friends. Others spontaneously joined them on their raucous way downtown, ringing their bicycle bells and shouting “Sí se puede,” or “Yes we can.”
By the time they reached City Hall Park, the crowd of delivery workers — many of them donning Guatemalan or Mexican flags — had doubled.
“We are a silent majority that’s never been heard,” one of the speakers, a delivery worker on the Upper West Side, said to cheers.
“If we don’t get the protections we deserve, we’ll have no choice but to strike,” he added, to even louder cheers.
Someone in the crowd shouted back “that way, no one gets fed.”
The rally has become a bellwether test for workers: A running joke at the Thanksgiving potluck was that whomever didn’t attend wouldn’t get a plate of food.
As it neared 5 p.m. at the dinner, workers packed away their soccer cleats and combed the field for trash. Some carried 15-pound turkeys as they mounted their bikes, showing off the colorful lights woven into the spokes of their wheels.
And just like that, a mass of men rode out into the chilly November dusk honking their horns and scattering into the streets of Manhattan to resume feeding New Yorkers.