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Gig Workers in Limbo Amidst California’s Reopening

“The working conditions had worsened and I was hesitant to do this work again, but it was the only job that was flexible enough to get me by.”

A window of a Subway Restaurant with a black sticker that reads: "Order with Uber Eats"
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Almost a year after Uber acquired Postmates for $2.65 Billion dollars, they have decided to get rid of Postmates’ Fleet application. In May of 2021, Postmates began warning its Fleet drivers to switch over to UberEats by June 7. Past that date, drivers would no longer be able to complete deliveries unless they were registered with UberEats. But the switchover has not been so smooth. Multiple drivers have experienced delays in the re-registration process, resulting in drivers losing income or their ability to continue working for these companies as California is reopening and still going through COVID-19 pandemic.

As I am writing, my registration to work for UberEats is yet to go through, joining a backlog of drivers’ requests that are still pending. I had been working as a driver with Postmates since May of 2019. Working for most of that summer was enough to experience the exploitative working conditions drivers face everyday. Coincidentally, that summer I got an internship with a local union in Los Angeles, SEIU 721, to organize drivers with the Mobile Workers Alliance, a campaign advocating for the rights of gig workers at the legislative level. 

During the day I would talk to drivers on the phone, or at parking lots, to canvas in support of AB5, a law that requires app-based companies to reclassify their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. I’d encourage drivers to demand for better working conditions and benefits like healthcare and a higher wage. At night, during dinner time, I would confirm what drivers would go through by doing the work myself, doing food delivery — from the lack of driver support, wasted mileage, and wear and tear of my vehicle, to a detrimental state of mental and physical health for an average of $6 dollars per order before tips. Working a part-time night shift could range from $40 to $70 dollars, per night. It was enough to barely survive for three months, and after that, I stepped away from doing deliveries for as long as I could.

By January, 2020, AB5 went into effect, but the gig companies refused to comply. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic forced drivers to face new challenges. All delivery and rideshare drivers were considered “essential workers,” but the companies did the bare minimum to keep their drivers safe. 

Two months after Los Angeles went into full lockdown, drivers received an email from Postmates informing us that we were eligible to claim a protective face mask that would be shipped cost-free. About a week later, I received a medium-sized envelope in the mailbox. When I opened it, I took out a single, almost see-through, piece of black fabric with two holes on both ends. This slim piece of cloth was the protective gear that would prevent us from contracting COVID-19… and that was it. Nothing else came in the envelope, not even a letter of appreciation, or a “stay safe” message. In fact, if we wanted a hand sanitizer, gloves, or disinfectant spray directly from Postmates, we would have to buy each item (or get them all in a bundle for $25). 

Thin cloth mask sent to Ivan by Postmates (Photo: Ivan Salinas)

The working conditions had worsened and I was hesitant to do this work again, but it was the only job that was flexible enough to get me by, just like thousands of people who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic and turned to app-based work for their main source of income. 

Karla Flores had been in the US for about a year when she started driving for Postmates during the pandemic. She delivered in areas like Hollywood and Beverly Hills where she could pick up more orders with bigger tips. That was until she couldn’t put off the switchover with UberEats by June of 2021. This change was communicated to drivers via email or when they logged into the app to start working. So far, consumers have not been made aware of the changes. 

“There was a message that appeared on the app,” Karla said. “I refused to re-register until the last minute, but I haven’t been able to do any work because the app blocks me from doing any deliveries.” Since May, she’s been waiting on her application’s approval and has tried several times to reach out to Uber, but hasn’t heard back yet.

“I’m in the same limbo that I was in when I first started working with Postmates.” She was referring to the first time she signed up as a delivery driver, when she had to wait two weeks to start working because her background check was not going through. Once it did, she realized none of her payments were being deposited to her bank account. “It took about a month to get in contact with someone so they could pay me.”  

Karla is a mother of two daughters and holds a degree in Business Administration from El Salvador. She said that she is familiar with the business models of these companies — specifically, she got very familiar with working for Uber as a driver in her home country. It sustained her enough to pay bills, but it was a job where she was risking her life. On one occasion, she picked up a client that took her to an area known for having gangs. When she got them to their destination, they held her at gunpoint and stole most of her belongings. There were men surrounding her car, and one of them told her she was lucky she wasn’t dead. Though she was safe after the assault, there was no one that she could report the issue to. Incidents like these occur daily around the world, but tech companies are not held responsible for what happens to drivers while on the job.

Now in the US, Karla is far from her two daughters (who still live in El Salvador). While her Postmates gig is on hold she can rely on working with Amazon Flex, a program that allows individuals (classed as independent contractors) to use their own vehicles to deliver packages. Whenever she’s out to work, she sends her location to her partner and her family. It’s a job that Karla already has experience with and feels is safer than having to deal with clients in her vehicle. Drivers are technically employed by third-party companies, referred to as delivery service partners. They are not guaranteed the same wages or benefits that Amazon warehouse workers receive and Karla knows this, which is why she’s in favor of drivers unionizing for better working conditions.

Similarly, Jorge Vargas, an Angeleno that has worked with several rideshare companies and has seen the gradual presence of the gig economy since the 90s, said he worked with Postmates until they blocked his account in 2019. Late at night around the Silver Lake area, he’d gotten a call from someone at Postmates to pick up an order at Tommy’s. “It felt like they were testing me,” he said. When he picked up the order and took it to his car, he received another call to park and not to deliver the order he had just gotten. After that, they claimed they detected fraudulent activity on his account, claiming that someone else was using it. Since then, he’s not used the app to do any deliveries. 

On top of that, he never received a bonus payment of $25. Drivers are usually given monetary incentives to meet a delivery quota. “You may say it’s not much, but if they’re doing this to other drivers, just think how much is that if they did it to 1,000 drivers? How much money are they stealing?” asked Vargas.

From doing this work myself, I know these quotas are very hard to reach, especially if you’re driving long distances like in Los Angeles. The quotas could change month to month or even weekly. One day it could be nine deliveries within a five-hour period and you get a $70 dollar bonus, and the next day it could go up to 13 deliveries. 

Lately, Jorge delivers with GrubHub where he’s gotten a dismal amount of work — often having to drive long distances while earning less than what it used to pay. He’s also a driver for Roadie, which delivers packages like sports gear, Home Depot supplies, pharmaceuticals, etc. He’s noticed a pattern of gig-apps using the same business model that will then disrupt other industries. It’s possible that workers’ conditions could worsen if they were to be turned into independent contractors and companies find loopholes to refuse them benefits.    

In November 2020, Proposition 22 was added to the California ballot in order to “let the voters decide” how companies should classify their drivers while tech companies spent nearly $187 million dollars to influence voters’ decisions. Prop 22 exempts app-based drivers from AB5, allowing companies that want to hire “independent contractors” to continue their traditional business model. In November, 59% of California voters said “yes” and, almost immediately, drivers were hit hard with the new regulations. But the organizing efforts to overturn the carve-out law are still going strong. 

Currently, there is a pending lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Prop 22. The lawsuit was filed by SEIU along with two drivers and two advocates — consumers of the platform. According to Wendy Knight, research and policy analyst for local union SEIU 721, the lawsuit was filed in the Supreme Court first at the beginning of the year, but the court refused to hear the case. It didn’t bar them from pursuing litigation in the lower courts, so they filed a lawsuit against the state of California in a lower court in Alameda County. 

If the ruling favors SEIU — and Prop 22 were to be overturned — AB5 would then be enforced to the fullest extent of the law. “At this point it is in the judicial system’s hands,” said Knight, “We are putting our best foot forward with our legal team, but it depends on the judges’ ruling.”

In the meantime, organizers like those in the Mobile Workers Alliance in Los Angeles are continuing to mobilize drivers, digitally or on the ground. They continue to raise an awareness of the many issues going on in the rideshare industry, among them the issue of high delivery fees for restaurants, or the guarantee of a healthcare stipend for all drivers — one of the promises made by gig companies with Prop 22.

In spite of these new promises made after Prop 22, drivers haven’t felt like much has changed, especially if they are experiencing the same issues. Ana Barragan, from South Central, has been an Uber and Lyft driver for the last four years. She said that while working during the pandemic, she couldn’t use any public bathroom due to COVID restrictions. Her body developed kidney stones, which she had to be hospitalized for. She had to pay out of pocket, without any financial support from the companies she drove for. 

Or there is the case of Julian Perez, from Huntington Park, who works 10–12 hours a day and is 61 years old. He began working for Uber after his job in the stage conversion team at the Staples Center came to a halt. During the elections, he made calls at various events with the MWA campaign, urging people to vote “No” on Prop 22. He joined the union after he had an accident on the freeway while he was using Uber. Someone rear-ended his car. He and the client were fine, and the car had only minor damage. When the incident was reported, Uber offered him their insurance plan, which would cost him $2,500 to fix the damage. When he refused to take the offer, Uber blocked his account, leaving him to switch over to Lyft and continue working with a new vehicle. 

As a legislative change is an ongoing battle, gig drivers are not giving up. Standing in solidarity with fellow co-workers goes a long way, even if not all drivers will reap the long-term benefits. “Some of these drivers don’t get it, not everyone is having the same experiences when they drive,” said Jorge Vargas. “Their mindset is just in earning, whether I benefit from it or not, we should stand in solidarity for our co-workers to better our working conditions.”

As for my re-registration to work for UberEats, I am on a waiting list for UberEats, DoorDash, GrubHub, and Shipt. The shutdown of one delivery company means that the rest of the companies will be more saturated. The last email announcement drivers received from Postmates was on July 9, 2021. It said, “as soon as 8/9, the Postmates Fleet app will go away. That means 30 days from now, you will no longer be able to access the Fleet app.”