As the remains of Hurricane Ida swept through New York City on Wednesday night, killing at least 13 people, millions of the city's residents hunkered down in their apartments for safety. Some of them even placed orders for dinner on delivery apps.
Meanwhile, many of the city's gig workers who deliver food on bikes for GrubHub, DoorDash, and Relay risked their lives, traversing flooded streets on e-bikes and motorcycles to deliver meals to homebound residents for income.
"I delivered food on my moped in Morningside Heights," a gig worker for the platform Relay who lives in Manhattan told Motherboard in Spanish. "It was very, very hard. Tons of traffic. There was a moment when I couldn't see anything. On my last order, my moped would not turn on. I had to try many times."
The Relay worker asked to remain anonymous because he feared retaliation from Relay where he has worked for five years.
"I'm accustomed to working for Relay because of the incentives," the Relay worker said. "When there’s rain or snow, you can make more money."
Motherboard reached out to GrubHub, UberEats, DoorDash, and Relay for comment. GrubHub suspended service in certain parts of New York City based on local conditions. DoorDash said it suspended service in Manhattan. UberEats and Relay did not respond to a request for comment.
In New York City, delivery couriers who survive on meager wages often are incentivized to work during rain and snow storms because gig companies offer the lucrative bonuses and incentives, an organizer at Los Deliverstas Unidos, a grassroots network of immigrant food delivery workers in New York City, told Motherboard. While the conditions during Wednesday evening's tropical storm were exceptional, the reasons delivery workers braved life-threatening conditions continued to be the promise of higher than usual earnings.
"When it rains, workers make the most money," said Hildalyn Colon Hernandez, director of policy and strategic partnerships for Los Deliveristas Unidos. "Summer, in particular, is slow. People leave [the city] and go out. When it rains, workers stay as much as they can outside. It's their opportunity to make money and companies are in desperate need. But it causes consequences for workers."
Hernandez told Motherboard that she received reports from Grubhub, DoorDash, Relay workers who delivered food in Queens and Manhattan during the storm on Wednesday evening. She said both apps operated all night. GrubHub did not offer incentives, but DoorDash offered $3.50 per delivery and Relay offered $2 per delivery, she said.
On Twitter, a video of what appeared to be a delivery courier wading through waist high water with his bike and a bag of food in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sparked widespread outrage against customers who placed orders during the storm and the apps for failing to shut off service to protect workers.
The Relay worker told Motherboard that around 8 p.m. Wednesday evening, he parked his moped to make a delivery, but when he returned, he couldn't restart it. He spent Thursday morning, taking apart his motorcycle piece-by-piece, and putting it back together.
"My [moped] wouldn’t turn on this morning," the worker said. "I had to take it apart piece by piece, change parts. The company isn’t responsible for any part of it."
Relay's CEO did not respond to a request for comment, but organizers and workers said Relay—a platform that connects gig workers to restaurants in New York City—did not suspend service throughout the flash flood and offered $2 per order incentives to gig workers on Wednesday night. Relay's gig workers sign up to get on the schedule a day before, and cannot decline orders, even during Wednesday's hurricane and tornado warnings in New York.
As independent contractors, GrubHub, DoorDash, UberEats, and Relay couriers do not receive healthcare benefits, paid time off, compensation for wear and tear on their bikes, worker's compensation if they're injured, life insurance, or guarantee that they'll earn the minimum wage.
"The safety of delivery workers is a top priority," a spokesperson for GrubHub said. "While we always appreciate the hard work drivers put in to get the job done, no delivery worker for any company or restaurant should ever take an action that would jeopardize their safety.”
"The safety of our community is paramount," a spokesperson for DoorDash said. "We actively evaluate our service areas when impacted by the weather and other events and may pause operations and communicate these actions with our merchant partners and Dashers. We closely monitor conditions and guidance from local officials, incorporate feedback from our community, and adjust our operations as necessary."