For many quarantined Americans, this year’s Cinco de Mayo was an excuse to order takeout tacos, guacamole, and frozen margaritas. The DoorDash, GrubHub, UberEats, Seamless, and Caviar workers who picked up these orders from Mexican restaurants around the country described the evening to Motherboard as “a total disaster, “shit show,” and “cluster bomb.”
“It was a total disaster. I went to a regular Mexican restaurant last night that I’ve picked up from many times and never had a problem, but there were 100 cars in the parking lot, a huge line of 30 or more people outside of the restaurant, and 20 people packed in the lobby,” said Susan, a GrubHub delivery driver in Portland. Motherboard agreed to use delivery drivers' first names only in this story because they feared retribution from platforms that increasingly control their working hours.
In cities around the country, dozens of gig workers crammed onto sidewalks, parking lots, and even inside restaurant lobbies. Workers scolded each other for standing closer than 6-feet apart. Food went undelivered. Many workers were forced to choose, in some cases, between waiting for more than an hour for orders to be prepared by skeleton kitchen crews, or canceling orders out of frustration or fear of exposure to other workers.
“People didn’t have masks and were not maintaining distance very well,” Susan said. “After I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get the order for 30 minutes or more, I cancelled the order, losing $15. When I got another order from the same restaurant, I cancelled it again.”
Cancelling an order on GrubHub, DoorDash, and UberEats can lower gig workers’ ratings, which determine who gets the most lucrative orders.
In Brooklyn, management at the Mexican restaurant Chavela’s told Motherboard that police showed up to monitor a line of 20 Caviar drivers outside the restaurant. At another Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, La Palapa, restaurant owners hired a security guard to enforce social distancing on the sidewalk. At the Taco Bell Cantina in Bed Stuy, separate lines for Uber Eats, GrubHub, DoorDash, and PostMates were created; there were lines of dozens of masked drivers with their bikes and motorcycles clustered in front all night.
“Last night I was at a Mexican restaurant and had to wait for an hour,” Tenesia Gathimbi, a DoorDash driver in Philadelphia told Motherboard. “To be honest, the restaurant handled it well, but everyone was frustrated. Ten or more us were waiting for orders.”
“El Taco Tote and Rubios were the Mexican spots that were a shit show,” a DoorDash and Postmates gig worker in Arizona wrote to Motherboard. “Rubios was a MESS. They had so many orders out on tables. Like 20+ orders on almost all the available booth tables in the restaurant….There were like 20 drivers crammed in there, and nobody was able to find their order.”
UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash, and Caviar allow restaurants to cancel orders or turn off delivery status whenever they choose, but the apps do little else to mitigate rushes of orders that can create large crowds of gig workers, an increasingly common occurrence during the pandemic, when millions of people have begun relying on delivery workers for meals.
Many restaurants are on multiple delivery apps, meaning that they can get a rush of orders coming from multiple apps in quick succession.
The platforms, for their part, seem to be blaming restaurants for Tuesday's mess.
“Restaurants are in full control of their orders, so mitigating high influxes of orders is in the hands of our restaurant partners, not UberEats,” a spokesperson for UberEats told Motherboard. “Ideally, our couriers shouldn't be waiting an hour +, as the order should be in-process and nearing completion by the time they're sent to the restaurant. Of course, there are rare circumstances where this isn't always the case.”
“We’ve built our platform to best alert drivers when an order is ready so we time the pickup to when the food is ready, ensuring the restaurant-driver handoff goes as smoothly as possible,” a spokesperson for GrubHub told Motherboard. “If for some reason this does not happen, we encourage drivers to follow guidance from the CDC and take any precautions when interacting with diners and restaurants, which includes social distancing expectations.”
A spokesperson for DoorDash (which also owns Caviar) told Motherboard that it provides restaurants and couriers with guidelines for social distancing, but cannot enforce any social distancing policies because its gig workers are independent contractors who control their own working conditions.
Several New York City Mexican restaurants told Motherboard it was one of the busiest evenings in their restaurants’ history. On Reddit, the owner of a seafood-inspired Mexican eatery in California described the scene at his restaurant as an “absolutely unanticipated shit show.”
“We’re new to delivery but we sold 285 margaritas and 100 to 150 delivery orders within two hours,” Sean Curneen, the owner of Casa Pública, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn, told Motherboard. “I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life…I would say it was the busiest I’ve ever seen any restaurant before.”
“Last night was the most deliveries we’ve ever done. We’re always slammed on Cinco,” said Philip Ward, a manager at Chavela’s, another Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. “Obviously it was a different story last night. There were tons of people. At one point, there was a cop outside. I thought he was going to come in and shut us down.”
Gig workers told Motherboard that prior to the pandemic, holidays like Valentine’s Day and New Years had been among their busiest days of the year, and expressed concern about what lines could look like on Mother’s Day and the 4th of July if shelter-in-place-orders remain. Even on normal days during the pandemic, long lines outside of restaurants in Manhattan have sparked police interventions.
“When I pulled up to a Tex Mex restaurant I ended up trapped…that was the busiest I’ve seen a restaurant since the lockdown began,” a GrubHub delivery driver told Motherboard. “I am wary about future holidays. Mother’s Day is coming up, and that’s, traditionally, the second busiest day for restaurants outside of Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure how it’s going to go this year. I don’t think anyone truly does, but we drivers on Reddit were wondering what the particular restaurant apocalypse would be for that night.”