As Uber Offers Bagels by Bike, New York City Couriers Seek More Pay

  • Considered independent contractors they seek full-time status
  • About 7,400 NYC messengers earn an average $23,000 a year

Uber Technologies Inc., which has battled New York cabbies, regulators and its own workers, now faces a fight with foot and bike couriers as it moves to grab a share of the business delivering anything from blueprints to bagels.

New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a drivers’ union that has sued Uber over its labor practices, is advising a nascent organizing effort by messengers, who have become symbols of fast-paced urban life. While they enjoy the freedom of working as contractors, that designation allows Uber, which employs them in its UberRUSH and UberEATS businesses, to avoid paying their social security, workers’ compensation, unemployment and insurance.

Hannington Dia in New York.

Photographer: Saul Martinez/Bloomberg

“As a beginner, I romanticized the idea of making a living riding city streets, dodging potholes, carrying important documents to the high and mighty,” said Hannington Dia, a bike messenger in his 20s who began working for Uber in 2015. “I began making great money, more than $1,000 a week, but by November after a series of pay cuts, I was taking home about 40 percent less.”

City Councilman Brad Lander sees the messengers’ struggles as part of a larger problem of fairness in an emerging “gig economy” where as many as 1.3 million work as freelancers or independent contractors. Uber, the largest ride-hailing company, with a valuation of $69 billion, faces lawsuits and regulatory challenges over its business model, including demands by drivers to be classified as employees who are entitled to labor standards such as minimum wage.

It might have been easy to dismiss the ragtag group of couriers announcing their organizing effort in front of City Hall on Oct. 18 if its members hadn’t already gained support from Lander, as well as the Taxi Workers Alliance. The union, which has won fare increases and other benefits for thousands of cabbies, is representing Uber drivers who say in lawsuits that they should be considered full-timers because the company sets their work rules and pay.

“We’ve supported raising the minimum wage, and improving conditions for fast-food workers and car-wash workers, but now we are turning our focus to people such as messengers and for-hire drivers and freelancers, who have a right to earn a living with benefits and protections employees have come to expect,” Lander said. 

To address another aspect of the issue, the council Thursday unanimously approved its “Freelance Isn’t Free Act,” the first in the U.S. to require written contracts for all independent contract work worth $800 or more. Failure to pay within 30 days would allow the worker to enlist the help of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs and to sue in small claims court, where judges could impose double damages and order the defendant to pay attorney fees.

Taxi Alliance

UberRUSH, launched in New York in 2014, told couriers in a November e-mail that their commissions on deliveries would be reduced by at least 20 percent in response to customers who wanted it to lower its cost. The increased business, UberRUSH told its couriers, would “result in more deliveries for you.” 

Dia said the cuts motivated him to seek gigs with other companies in addition to Uber. After learning that Uber drivers had protested similar pay decreases at the company’s New York headquarters in February, Dia and other messengers contacted the Taxi Workers Alliance, which organized that demonstration. They decided to affiliate with the drivers under the banner of the Messenger Workers Alliance.

“The reason why this term, the gig economy, has been popularized, is that it suits the Uber business model,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “If you demand better pay and the answer is, ‘Wait a minute, this is just supposed to be a part-time gig.’ It justifies low wages and no benefits.”

Matthew Wing, an Uber spokesman, said the company offers an opportunity for people to set their own hours and earn extra income.

“People who drive or deliver with Uber tell us they love the flexibility and the ability to work exactly when and how they want,” Wing said. “Since couriers can and do use many other apps, we have to work every day to make Uber more rewarding for couriers, and we’re focused on just that, including listening to feedback and making improvements.”

Dispersed Workforce

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data available, 7,373 couriers worked in New York City, earning an average $23,444 in 2014. 

Organizing them may prove difficult, said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.

“Whenever you have a workforce that’s dispersed, where they are not working under one roof during the day, it’s always a challenge because they don’t have much interaction with each other,” he said. “At the same time, the Taxi Workers Alliance has had experience with a similar work culture and had success organizing both Yellow Cab and Uber drivers.”

Kurt Boone delivers packages in New York.

Photographer: Saul Martinez/Bloomberg

Kurt Boone, 57, a former high-school track star, was once known as the fastest foot courier in the city. About 10 years ago, a lung infection forced him into the hospital for a month and slowed him down. He got no disability pay. Medicaid benefits arranged by the hospital covered most of the bill, he said. He’s been at the job for more than 20 years working for at least seven companies, including Uber, until that job started paying less.

It bothers him, he says, that he’s not insured and would be expected to pay if a package he’s carrying arrives damaged, or that he’s not reimbursed for his gear, or that he’s never had a paid vacation. At his age, he says, he expects to retire relying on not much more than a $500-a-month Social Security check.

“If couriers organize collectively, we can do a lot more for all of us,” he said. “I know I can’t run packages forever, I have to prepare myself for that.”

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