Last October, a gig worker in San Antonio had an emergency tooth extraction that required six stitches in his jaw.
Later that day, the worker was scheduled for a shift on GoPuff—a rapidly growing app for alcohol, snacks, vapes, and other convenience deliveries that is popular among drunk college students. The worker's dentist had advised against heavy lifting—and he asked his co-workers if they could fill in for him, but none of them offered.
Fearing his manager would terminate his contract with the app, his primary source of income, he showed up to the GoPuff warehouse for work. His manager brushed him off when he tried to refuse a delivery assignment that required him to deliver multiple cases of water up three flights of stairs. As independent contractors, GoPuff drivers don't qualify for paid sick days, medical leave, or personal time off.
As he made it to the top of the stairs, he tasted blood in mouth; his stitches had ripped open. "After it happened, I had to keep going," he told Motherboard. "There's no stopping, no breaks, or pauses when you're on schedule." (Motherboard reviewed documentation of the receipt from the dental surgery.)
Gig economy companies, such as Uber and Lyft, often push the limits by denying their workers employee status and all of the benefits that come with it—while exerting control over their wages and working conditions as a traditional employer would do.
GoPuff takes this a step further. Drivers report to GoPuff managers who have the power to tell them what orders to take and to fire them if they don't comply. Restrictive scheduling rules mean drivers don't actually get to pick their work hours, but have several minutes each week to compete to get on schedule. Several GoPuff drivers say that this model—where they report to human managers and have to adhere to a predetermined schedule but are still treated like contractors without benefits—shouldn't be considered gig work at all. (GoPuff disputes the claim that managers have the right to terminate and manage drivers.)
During the pandemic, GoPuff expanded aggressively across the country, opening hundreds of service locations with an infusion of cash from the technology conglomerate Softbank and raising its value from $3.4 billion to $8.9 billion between October and March. The company relies on an army of independent contractors who use their own cars to transport deliveries from more than 460 GoPuff-owned warehouses and stores in 550 cities in the United States to customers—and advertises the freedom to be your own boss and to choose if and when to work.
In recent weeks, 24 GoPuff drivers have been attending virtual meetings to discuss their grievances and wrote a petition that has been signed by workers in more than 77 cities. They're demanding guaranteed hours, that managers stop directly controlling their working conditions, to be paid the advertised amount (roughly $18 to $20 an hour on Indeed.com) after gas and other expenses, and to remove the mandatory arbitrary clause from their contracts, which prevents them from pursuing legal action.
"We can’t afford to let this model expand to the rest of the gig economy," the petition says. "GoPuff’s only 'innovation' is their willingness to go beyond apps like Uber and shamelessly ignore laws about how much control they can exercise over independent contractors."
Motherboard spoke to four GoPuff drivers who said rejecting orders is either not allowed, or rarely allowed, and can be cause for termination. Such was the case with the gig worker in San Antonio, Texas who couldn't decline the order that caused his stitches to rip without risking termination.
"Declining orders has never been an option for us," Bradleigh Aeh, a GoPuff driver in Athens, Ohio who mainly delivers to college students at Ohio University, told Motherboard. "I've never seen anyone in my warehouse do it."
"We can decline orders but when we do it's a hassle," a GoPuff driver in Columbus, Ohio, said. "The GoPuff employees start retaliating against you. They can skip you in the order or make you go to the back of the line [of gig workers waiting for orders]. They can send you on a hard delivery with cases of beer and wine and water." A manager at an auto repair shop by day, the driver works the graveyard shift—7pm to 3am— at GoPuff to make ends meet.
A spokesperson for GoPuff said that GoPuff managers cannot manage, retain, or terminate its delivery drivers and that delivery drivers decide when to work and reject orders if they want, but did not provide a statement on the record. The company would not disclose how many gig workers use its platform.
GoPuff owns roughly 275 warehouses and 185 liquor stores in the United States. Its warehouses—known as micro fulfillment centers—which stock beer, wine, vapes, ice cream, sex toys, and a vast array of conveniences. Gig workers typically report to a single warehouse—where they wait in line in their cars, often in the middle of the night, for managers to assign deliveries.
The app takes the idea of a convenience store to the next level by cutting brick-and-mortar stores out of the picture entirely. GoPuff's service allows customers—often college students—to expect packs of Juul pods or cases of Bud Lite dropped off at their doorsteps within 30 minutes. Orders can be placed, with a few exceptions, 24/7. Tipping 25 or 50 cents is common, drivers say.
GoPuff drivers make a $2.50 or $3.00 commission per delivery—no matter how far they drive to deliver the order or how many items the order has. In other words, drivers are compensated the same whether they're delivering a single vape or multiple eighteen packs of beer up several flights of stairs. In addition, GoPuff pays its drivers an hourly subsidy that ranges between $8 to $20 an hour for their time. But it subtracts the commission from the subsidy earnings.
The company is similar to Gorillas, a European delivery app for conveniences, which has set up shop in New York City. The fastest-growing 'unicorn' in Europe, Gorillas workers have managers, face arbitrary firings, and quickly deliver large orders of alcohol from Gorillas warehouses for only a few bucks.
On Indeed.com, more than 20 GoPuff delivery driver reviews described rampant favoritism. GoPuff managers often give the most lucrative deliveries to their favorite gig workers. "There was a lot of favoritism, and when you call them out on their bs you get fired," one of these reviews reads.
In another example of the company pushing the boundaries of drivers' independent contractor status, a GoPuff driver told Motherboard that his manager asked drivers to mop the bathrooms and sweep the floors of the warehouse during their downtime.
GoPuff drivers have only a few minutes each week at a specified time, known as "the shift drop," to get on the schedule for the following week. They compete with other drivers at their warehouse for a spot on the schedule by refreshing the app for a limited number of shifts before they are gone. Four GoPuff drivers told Motherboard that shifts for the entire week are typically snatched up in one to two minutes. This is similar to a "quota" system that Uber temporarily implemented in New York City but was canceled after a Motherboard investigation into its inequities.
"It's cutthroat as fuck," Ray, a GoPuff driver in Virginia, told Motherboard. "You have 20 to 30 drivers fighting for 20 to 25 shifts." A full-time GoPuff driver, Ray applied to Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy apps, but only GoPuff accepted his application because of a marijuana charge on his record.
As GoPuff has expanded over the past year, it has raised its profile—poaching executives from Amazon, Uber, Airbnb. In April, Tim Collins, the vice president of global logistics at Amazon, announced he was leaving the company after 20 years to work at GoPuff. "I am humbled to join Gopuff's leadership team as SVP Global Operations and help build a great company centered around customer experience," Collins wrote on LinkedIn in April. The company recently purchased the retail beverage chain, BevMo, for $350 million, and a fleet management platform. It will soon be delivering hot meals and pizzas to customers from ghost kitchens, delivery-only restaurants.
Asked why they remain on the app, veteran GoPuff drivers told Motherboard that at times the pay can be very lucrative—with drivers earning more than $1,000 a week. But when things are slow, pay is often less than the minimum wage, four drivers told Motherboard.
"Initially my paychecks were great," said Aeh, the gig worker in Athens, Ohio who has worked at GoPuff for almost a year. "But the real kicker is that I've had days or chunks of my day where my pay doesn't add up to minimum wage, and I have quite a few orders with no tips or $1 or $2 tips."
"When students leave in spring, you see pay drop down from $1,000 a week to $300 a week," Ray, who works near a large university in Virginia, said. "It creates hardship for people."
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To make matters worse, glitches with GoPuff's payment system are frequent, workers say. As recently as last week, GoPuff experienced a major outage that caused paychecks to be delivered four days late—a huge problem for GoPuff workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck. Workers say these incidents require emailing the largely unresponsive driver support team, rather than contacting a human resources department that large employers offer.
"We get the worst of both worlds," the GoPuff petition reads. "Many of us depend on the flexibility of gig work to accommodate caretaking needs, disabilities, and other jobs. But on GoPuff, we can be terminated for missing a single shift, with no protection or sick time."