Food Delivery Is a Window Into Our Busy, Overworked Lives

$40 Burger King and other realities of the gig economy

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In late 2018, as part of a photo series on the future of work, I became a driver for Doordash.

The experience gave me a unique glimpse into America’s foodways and the realities of the gig economy. It was simultaneously illuminating, concerning — and at times surprisingly fulfilling. With Covid-19 highlighting gig workers’ crucial role in today’s world — and their willingness to put their lives on the line to keep people fed — it’s more important than ever to understand what it’s really like to work these jobs.

Doordash originally launched in 2013 as a graduate of Silicon Valley’s fabled Y Combinator startup accelerator. As of early 2020, the company had grown into the largest food delivery service in the United States. Covid-19 has helped accelerate its growth even further. Doordash now controls 44% of America’s food delivery market.

Doordash and its rivals are rapidly remaking the restaurant industry. The company works with 90% of top food brands offering delivery and aims to reach 90% of Americans in 2020. Doordash’s market value has grown to $16 billion, up from $12 billion before the pandemic struck.

If you haven’t used the service before—or never put much thought into how it causes food to magically appear at your doorstep—here’s how Doordash works. You place an order and pay through the app. Your payment includes the cost of the food, a delivery fee, taxes, and an optional tip (on which more later). As soon as your order is placed, Doordash transmits it to the restaurant via an app, a dedicated tablet, or even an old-school fax. When the order is ready, an independent Doordash driver picks it up, checks it over, and delivers it to your house. Drivers are paid based on a complex set of factors including the size of the order, the distance driven, and (sometimes) your tip.

The simplicity of Doordash’s service belies the remarkable complexities it has to negotiate, and its deep reliance on modern tech. Doordash’s business requires juggling relationships with restaurants, consumers who expect fast service, and an army of independent drivers in thousands of cities around the world who can start and stop working at will and who are constantly moving around.

Today, Doordash must coordinate its deliveries while navigating a complex maze of local and regional Covid-19 restrictions, closed restaurants, curfews, and the like. The whole process is facilitated by modern innovations including GPS, ubiquitous smartphones, and algorithms to predict demand, handle routing, and connect people with food they’ll enjoy.

For all its backend complexity, though, Doordash is fundamentally reliant on people — the cooks and servers in its partner restaurants, but most importantly the drivers who are the front end of the business. They’re the ones who actually interact with customers (albeit through text messages and closed doors at the moment), and are the public face of the business.

Some might assume that Doordash drivers are employees of the company, and are vetted and trained, at least to the standards of a fast-food employee. The reality is very different. For my photo series, I decided to sign up for Doordash at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. By 1 p.m. the same day, I was delivering food.

Don’t deliver alcohol to drunk people.

To become a driver, I visited a website and entered some basic information about myself. I then scheduled an in-person onboarding session in my area. Today, the in-person step has been replaced with an introductory packet that arrives in the mail, but the basic onboarding process is essentially the same.

My session was held in a nondescript office park in Concord, California. When I arrived, I was greeted by a friendly man sitting behind a folding table draped with swag, in an otherwise blank room filled with banquet chairs. It looked like a cross between an early stage startup office and a 12-step meeting. I handed over my driver’s license and the man ran a quick background check using the service Checkr, which is ubiquitous in the gig economy. I passed. My fellow prospective drivers and I then sat down to watch a brief instructional video.

Here I learned everything I needed to know to become a driver. Don’t touch the food (Doordash drivers are not food handlers, so they are instructed not to physically open or look in your order). Don’t deliver alcohol to drunk people. If you can’t find a customer, contact Doordash support. Today, the process also includes information about Covid-19 prevention, and new drivers are issued hand sanitizer, gloves, and other PPE (though some report they’ve had to pay out of pocket to have these items shipped).

That’s about it. In less than half an hour, my driver app was activated, I was issued a physical Doordash debit card to pay for orders (the company only loads the amount of an actual, upcoming order onto the card to avoid drivers going on company-funded shopping sprees), and I went on my way. A few hours later, I set out to make my first delivery. For my photo series, I drove multiple shifts at different times of day, in places around the Bay Area. Almost immediately, I started to notice some interesting trends.

Doordash’s advertising is very aspirational. The company presents itself as a way to expand your culinary horizons by trying the best restaurants in your area. One ad screams “Al Pastor At Your Door!” and features a couple getting cozy on a couch while a gourmet taco truck prepares their meal behind them. The company even has billboards featuring a banquet of delicious-looking local foods, with the tag lines like “Eat this Billboard.” Customers can scan a QR code, and have any dish shown on the ad delivered to their house via the app. These are placed at bus stops and train stations, targeting hungry commuters on their way home.

From this messaging, I expected to receive lots of big orders from the Bay Area’s smorgasbord of fancy, gourmet restaurants. This wasn’t what happened at all. Most of my orders were for fast food. And most of my customers were not foodies broadening their horizons. They appeared to be people without the time (or perhaps the freedom) to get something better to eat.

At lunch, for example, I spent a lot of time delivering Chipotle to skilled tradespeople and other workers — auto mechanics, medical technicians, contractors on job sites, and the like. These customers seemed to be ordering not because they liked or wanted the food, but because they were busy and had few other options.

Before the coronavirus, Bay Area tech companies were notorious for pampering their highly paid coders and engineers with exotic gourmet food. It’s a perk that has been challenged before, and may not survive the pandemic. On a visit to a big Silicon Valley tech company in 2015, I joined my host for a lunch of barbecued ribs, followed by an ice cream sundae (complete with the proverbial cherry on top) from a nostalgic, Disneyland-style ice cream shop. All of it was free.

If you’re not a member of the pampered tech elite, though, life in the Bay Area can be very different. To pay for the high cost of living, long commutes, and grueling hours are the norm. This leaves precious little time for niceties like a healthy, leisurely lunch.

Most of my customers seemed to be workers with enough disposable income to afford a $12 taco bowl, but not enough time or flexibility to walk away from their work — even long enough for a momentary lunch break. I did a lot of rapid handoffs in parking lots and spent a lot of time wandering the bowels of car dealerships to bring people lukewarm burgers right on the shop floor.

Dinner deliveries followed a similar pattern. In a typical delivery, I brought $40 worth of Burger King to a large family living in an aging third-floor walk-up apartment in a forgotten corner of Dublin, California.

Occasionally, I would receive a big order from a fancy restaurant. But most of the time, Doordash’s actual purpose seemed very different from its aspirational ads. At least in the Bay Area, the service seems to skew less toward expanding culinary horizons, and more toward delivering convenience foods to busy, overworked people.

Delivery drivers themselves may often be among their ranks. On a typical shift, I earned between $18 and $23 per hour, before direct expenses. Factoring in costs like fuel, vehicle wear and tear, and (ideally) private insurance, that works out to a net rate of about $14 to $19 per hour. That’s not bad for a casual job, especially one where the worker enjoys a great deal of flexibility and control over their hours. It’s a good deal higher than minimum wage, which remains at $13 per hour in California.

Of course, it assumes you already own a car (or a bike or scooter, if you deliver in a city). And because Doordash’s workers are classified as independent contractors, there are tons of indirect costs too, like health insurance and tax preparation.

These may be offset somewhat by the ability to deduct mileage and other expenses. But whether most Doordash drivers are documenting their expenses, making estimated tax payments, filing a properly executed form 1090, and the like is anyone’s guess. Doordash doesn’t make it any easier for them — according to the company’s tax information page, “DoorDash does not provide a break down of your total earnings between base pay, tips, pay boosts, milestones, etc.,” so it can be challenging to determine how much a driver has actually earned.

Studies that say that Doordash drivers make less than $2 per hour often use overly pessimistic assumptions for the average size of an order, the mileage expenses incurred by drivers, and more. These extremely low pay rates weren’t reflective of what I actually saw on the job. But working for the service does require incurring lots of expenses, many of which (like the risk of being injured on the job) are often difficult or impossible to accurately track.

On a typical shift, I earned between $18 and $23 per hour, before direct expenses.

At least when I was driving, Doordash’s pay rates were also completely opaque. When a new order came in, you could see how much you’d get for fulfilling it. But there was no breakdown of how that amount was calculated, or what portion came from customer tips, distance fees, or actual commissions on the order. You could refuse specific orders, but you were strongly encouraged not to.

This opacity later came back to bite Doordash in a big way. As reported in the New York Times, Doordash offered customers the chance to leave a tip, and then effectively kept these tips for itself, rather than passing them on to drivers. The company initially defended the practice, but under pressure from several states, it later reneged in 2019 and said that all tips would go directly to the driver.

Doordash has attracted the scrutiny of labor regulators for other reasons, too. Its practice of categorizing drivers as independent contractors has been challenged, notably by California’s AB5 law. Several cities and states want Doordash to pay its drivers as employees, and provide the same benefits other employees receive.

Covid-19 has highlighted the urgency of these measures and has helped move some forward. As the pandemic struck, the company began to offer minimal employee-like benefits to its drivers, including paid time off if they catch the virus, or are ordered to quarantine by a doctor. U.S. unemployment laws have also extended protection to gig workers for the first time, putting them on a more even footing with employees.

Drivers, though, say these measures provide far too little protection. At the start of the pandemic, a driver for another service reached out to me about Covid-19 sick leave, and said it “might sound compassionate. But it means you have to literally risk your life in order to get paid. [Drivers] will only be [be] given any type of assistance if we contract a deadly virus.” And that assistance isn’t in the form of health insurance, which many employees would receive, but rather a minimal period of sick leave.

As a driver at the time, though, my thoughts were less on the specifics of my status as an employee or independent contractor, and more on the daily annoyances of the job. Working with restaurants, for example, throws a whole range of complexities and potential problems into a driver’s life. Many restaurants were wonderful, and some even offered free perks to drivers, like free sodas while waiting for an order.

But others would fail to honor orders, only begin preparing them once the driver actually arrived, or prioritize their own in-house orders over those from Doordash. This forces the driver to wait around until the food is ready, their effective hourly rate dropping by the minute. Dealing with these delays and order problems was one of the most dispiriting parts of the job.

To be fair, restaurants don’t exactly have it easy while working with Doordash, either. The company has waived some fees and commissions during the pandemic, but in normal times Doordash’s take can be as high as 30%. With restaurants already squeezed by lockdowns, capacity reductions, and supply chain disruptions due to Covid-19, those commissions are a major hit.

Some restaurants have pushed back and challenged Doordash and its competitors. In a social media post that went viral, a Chicago pizza restaurant showed how after commissions, his restaurant only made $376 on over $1,000 in orders placed through rival service Grubhub. Several cities are now working to cap commissions during the pandemic.

For gig economy drivers, working during the coronavirus has been more of a mixed bag. Some report exhaustion and low pay, and data shows they face similar virus exposure risks to doctors and nurses. But other drivers say that their earnings have increased dramatically during the pandemic. One Grubhub and UberEats driver interviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer said he earned around $200 per day during the city’s lockdowns. He also felt he was doing something positive by helping people get food, and helping restaurants stay afloat.

I can vouch for the oddly fulfilling aspects of working for Doordash. There’s a strange, tiny spark of genuine connection when you bring a stranger a meal — even if you’re dropping it on their porch and hearing a muffled “thank you” through a closed door, and even if it’s a mediocre sandwich that costs $11. In some deep, primal way, bringing people food makes them happy. That’s something I detected from my very first delivery. It was one of the best parts of my time with Doordash.

There were also little moments of humanity and levity in the job. I remember making a delivery to a college student who — clearly stoned out of his mind — offered a sheepish “Thanks, man” as he opened his door a crack to accept his delivery. He had paid me $6 to deliver tacos from two blocks away.

There was a genuine camaraderie and understanding among drivers, too. I remember exchanging pleasantries, discussing earnings strategies, and offering many a friendly, “Be safe out there” to other delivery drivers as we stood together waiting to pick up our customers’ food. The drivers I met were all friendly and open, and participating in their world felt like taking part in a tiny, ad-hoc community each time I waited for a pickup.

I was glad, then, to see that during the pandemic, delivery drivers are finally getting the recognition they deserve for the essential service they provide. When I did my series, drivers were nearly invisible — just another cog in the giant logistics machine of Big Tech. Today, they’re rightly hailed as frontline heroes. Mattel has even included a delivery driver alongside doctors and nurses in its new line of Thank You Heroes action figures.

Delivery drivers deserve their own action figures. As cities were closing down and many people were retreating indoors, drivers went right on driving. They’ve provided a crucial lifeline to many homebound citizens during the pandemic, including older people and those who are ill. And the food they bring has helped millions through Covid-19 lockdowns — both here in America and abroad.

I hope, though, that the positive feelings toward delivery drivers and other gig economy extend beyond words, and into actions and changes to company policies. Doordash’s move to pass tips on to drivers, offer more transparent payments, and provide sick leave and benefits, is a positive start (though some drivers say the leave is hard to access).

But in an era where drivers are literally risking their lives to fulfill orders — and delivery companies are seeing record growth — the companies need to ensure that the growth they’re seeing doesn’t just pad the coffers of their venture capital investors. It needs to benefit their drivers (and partner restaurants, too).

When I drove for Doordash, food delivery was an expensive indulgence — or a necessary evil for the overworked. Today, it has emerged as an essential service, which has made sheltering in place easier and more tolerable for millions, while helping to keep the restaurant industry afloat (albeit at a major cost). Doordash and its competitors should leverage their newly essential position not only to continue growing but to ensure that their services remain sustainable for the thousands of drivers and small businesses on which they ultimately rely.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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