Early on Thursday morning, Elizabeth Grisly left her car running while making a DoorDash delivery in an Atlanta suburb. Suddenly, her car door closed and the vehicle drove off without her and with her one-year-old daughter still asleep inside.
The car was found abandoned later that morning, and Grisly’s daughter was later found on a stranger’s front steps. The story is the latest horrifying incident involving a delivery driver’s car being stolen thanks to the dual pressures of high-speed app work at odd hours and lack of access to childcare. Thanks to these factors, drivers may bring children along with them and it’s a common practice for drivers to leave their vehicles running while they dash to the front door as a time-saver.
Grisly’s case comes with an additional dire twist, though: someone purposefully exploited delivery drivers’ working conditions in order to steal her car. In a press conference kicking off a search for Grisby's daughter, police said the DoorDash order "appears to be fake" and part of a setup to lure a delivery driver to the area. Police arrested a 14-year-old suspect and say there is an additional suspect involved who returned the baby.
This isn't the first carjacking targeting a DoorDash driver and it's hard to imagine it'll be the last. In February, a San Francisco driver named Jeffrey Fang had his car stolen while he was making deliveries and jumped out while the vehicle stayed on―his children were also inside.
"Most of the people in the gig economy, we're trying to make it," Fang told The New York Times in an interview, adding that he simply couldn’t afford childcare during peak delivery times. "We're doing what we can but the odds are stacked against us. It's not easy. Oftentimes, we have to balance between impossible choices."
Also in February, a DoorDash driver in Glenn Burie, Maryland was targeted and got away while another in St. Louis, Missouri was carjacked at gunpoint in another setup. Delivery drivers have been targeted far and wide across the country, ranging from Tampa, Florida or Severin, Maryland, to Fremont, California and Washington, DC.
With the nationwide increase of carjackings during the pandemic, but it's not hard to see why gig workers might be targeted more than others. As long as gig workers work for companies that preserve all the control of an employer with none of the legal responsibilities, gig workers will be subject to a host of pressures and unsafe working conditions as they struggle to make ends meet.
Gig workers are only paid for deliveries, not time spent logged on, so during peak delivery times that means every trip counts and every second matters if you want to make ends meet. Sometimes that means leaving your car running as you drop off food, sometimes that means leaving the car doors open as you hop out, and sometimes that means honoring a request to meet in a specific spot. The fast pace of the work makes it so that doing one of these things is that much more likely.
Woefully inadequate benefits (no paid sick leave, no healthcare, etc.) in most of the country force drivers to choose between one necessity or another. In California, gig companies passed Proposition 22 which offers benefits like paltry healthcare stipends and occupational accident insurance in exchange for preserving misclassification. Sub-minimum wages, however, are still stretched far too thin in California and elsewhere to cover childcare, meaning some parents are forced to make a hard choice: do I bring my child along while I deliver food so I can afford food, or do I leave them home alone and hope that nothing happens?
Thanks to misclassification (that is, treating workers as independent contractors rather than employees), DoorDash has no obligation to help any driver whose vehicle is stolen. In the past, the company has handled incidents on a case-by-case basis. After Fang raised over $100,000 on GoFundMe so he could quit gig work, DoorDash said it would offer him “financial support.”
DoorDash did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
The main reason why gig workers―whether they work for DoorDash, Uber, or Amazon―suffer unsafe working conditions is because their employers have either successfully carved out exemptions from labor law or otherwise benefitted from a long campaign to convince the public and regulators that certain workers don’t deserve to be protected. It doesn’t have to be this way, but things will not radically change unless lawmakers strike at the base of the gig economy’s exploitative business model.