On Sunday, two children were found by police after their father, a DoorDash driver, had his vehicle stolen while making deliveries in San Francisco Saturday night with his children in the car.
"I yelled at him and told him to get out and two of my kids are in the car," Jeffrey Fang told ABC 7 TV in San Francisco. "Times are hard, if you're going to have to resort to stealing, that's a different matter, but please, don't hurt my kids. Let them return safely back to me and my wife, please," Fang asked.
Naturally, much of the discussion around the incident has centered on the question of blame. And while some observers readily blamed Fang or the city’s crime rates, experts and politicians say the largest factor at play is how gig economy companies like DoorDash force people to work quickly, at odd hours, and without childcare support.
“I missed the Prop 22 commercial that said flexibility includes being ‘able’ to bring your babies to work,” California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez wrote in a tweet. “DoorDash doesn’t provide paid family leave for their drivers, so maybe we can all help this family recover from this terror. And rethink the gig economy.”
Fang reportedly left his car running so he could quickly run to deliver the order and then return, allowing someone to quickly jump in and drive away. Gig workers are pressured by how the companies structure work to fill as many orders as possible by shaving off seconds wherever they can; one very risky way to save time is to leave your car running as you quickly jump out to deliver food. Add to this the fact that Fang had to take his young children with him on the job that night, and the risk compounds.
“If this driver were an employee, DoorDash would have to reimburse him for all business expenses. That means, essentially, that they would have to pay for any losses he incurred due to damage on his car, and if he needed another one, they would likely have to provide funds to make that possible,” said Veena Dubal, professor at UC Hastings Law School. “But more importantly, if this driver were properly classified as an employee, he would get a minimum wage guarantee, overtime expenses, paid sick leave, health insurance, and other benefits so that he could possibly afford childcare.”
In a January op-ed on the gig economy’s negative effects on childcare, Dana Suskind, co-founder and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, wrote that "research has found that unpredictable and nonstandard work schedules, common among gig workers, can undermine children's development."
Suskind cites research that is unambiguous on this front. Nonstandard working hours can result in children that "demonstrate lower-than-average cognitive skills,” preschoolers that are "more likely to struggle behaviorally,” and "inconsistent and poor-quality childcare arrangements.”
“All workers need childcare support—either from the government or from the companies that they work for,” Dubal added. “Childcare is a huge expense--prohibitive for most people. Raising healthy, kind children is a public good. And the public should be invested in it. In the US, we are not.”
In a statement to Sara Hossaini, a KQED journalist, a DoorDash spokesperson "confirmed" the company was providing direct financial support. Fang, however, said that same day he had yet to receive any offer from the company. "I'm not looking for a handout," Fang told Hossaini on the phone. "I thank them for mentioning that they want to do it, but I haven't gotten anything."
In the meantime, a KickStarter was started by a friend of Fang's to help him afford to stay away from gig work and actually spend time with his family.
In a statement attributed to DoorDash CEO Tony Xu and sent to Motherboard, the executive said, ”We have been in contact with him to offer our full support and our thoughts remain with him and his loved ones. We urge anyone with information about this horrific incident to contact law enforcement immediately.”
DoorDash itself did not cause the vehicle theft, but its misclassification of drivers as contractors means the firm has no actual obligation to help Fang. In fact, DoorDash and other app-based gig companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide on lobbying, electoral campaigns, public relations, and passing laws they wrote to ensure they continue to have no such obligation to their drivers.
What DoorDash does have an obligation to do is to cut costs and improve its financials—to squeeze more production out of each driver in less time.
An accelerating pace of work and unsafe working conditions aren’t unique to the gig economy. Amazon, for example, contracts with delivery service partners—third party companies—that directly employ drivers and assume all liability, even as Amazon tightly manages them to hit increasingly demanding quotes and targets even as drivers and pedestrians are injured or killed. And no matter where you work, unless you have incredible benefits the U.S. social safety net is woefully inadequate and spends next to nothing on childcare benefits when compared to the rest of the OECD.
These are benefits everyone deserves to have because, as Dubal points out, raising healthy and kind children is a public good. Ending misclassification and providing those benefits would likely ensure this situation never occurs to anyone else again.