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Food Delivery Workers Veer Into Warfare Over Breakthrough Wage Proposal

Trailblazing labor group Los Deliveristas Unidos loses leaders over fears that a pay boost measure could backfire, stoked by the major delivery apps.

April 6, 2023 Claudia Irizarry Aponte, The City
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY

Last fall, the upstart group of food delivery workers known as Los Deliveristas Unidos was celebrating its finest moment, just two years after its launch in the depths of the pandemic.

Those workers secured a proposed minimum pay standard, the first of its kind for delivery workers in the nation, as mandated by a 2021 law they persuaded the City Council to pass. Other bills passed at the same time tackled some of workers’ biggest concerns on the job, notably guaranteeing access to restaurant bathrooms, and regulating the distances of each delivery trip.

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In an ebike-fast span of time, the workers — many of them Indigenous Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants — had rocketed into political influence. They had delivery app giants such as Uber and DoorDash facing unprecedented regulation to improve pay and conditions.

“We had no idea what we were getting into. We went from being seen, as one of my compañeros said, as insects or misfits to, at this point, achieving something much bigger,” Sergio Ajche, a delivery worker who co-founded Los Deliveristas Unidos, told THE CITY when a $24-an-hour pay proposal surfaced in November, adding that the reforms would “drastically” change the industry for the better.

Instead, what followed was a tumultuous winter for the organization and the Workers Justice Project, the nonprofit workers center at its helm.

A much-anticipated network of charging and rest stations announced by Mayor Eric Adams and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) stalled after communities in The Bronx and the Upper West Side fought proposed conversions of vacant neighborhood newsstands.

Additionally, the expected $24 hourly pay standard has evaporated, after the Adams administration took the unusual step of rescinding a pending regulation midway through review. Last month City Hall reissued the pay proposal, setting a lower $19.96 hourly rate by 2025.

Mayor Eric Adams visits with deliveristas during a rally in City Hall Park, April 21, 2022.
Mayor Eric Adams visits with deliveristas during a rally in City Hall Park, April 21, 2022. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city estimates that workers currently earn $11 per hour, including tips.

Now some workers themselves – including prominent former leaders within the organization – have joined app giants like Uber and DoorDash in pushing back on the pay proposal, with some asserting in testimony to the city that the minimum wage scheme is a mistake that could backfire on workers by making it harder to get shifts.

On March 16, nearly 100 workers picketed a planned Workers Justice Project (WJP) fundraiser at a community center in the Financial District — even though the event had been abruptly canceled hours before it was slated to begin.

Workers ripped up and attempted to light t-shirts with the Los Deliveristas Unidos logo on fire, and chanted “¡fuera Ligia!” – “out with Ligia!” — referring to WJP executive director Ligia Guallpa.

The infighting has taken its toll on the Workers Justice Project, the parent organization of Los Deliveristas Unidos, which for years has worked with immigrants in precarious jobs, including domestic cleaners, nannies and construction laborers. Half a dozen organizers and staff have quit WJP in the last few months, as have some prominent worker-leaders in the delivery worker campaign.

Los Deliveristas Unidos leaders, and even some of those former staffers, privately described the rifts as disappointing, heartbreaking, a betrayal and an unwanted distraction at a time where delivery workers in New York are set to secure landmark minimum pay standards.

They also worry that those in the opposition were inadvertently playing into anti-union and anti-regulatory agenda pushed by the app companies. None of them were willing to disparage their fellow workers, even in private, because they did not want to sow further division — and emphasized they’re up against the companies, not fellow workers.

Some of those in the opposition are pushing to topple the organization’s leadership, headed by Guallpa, the executive director of WJP. They blame her leadership — more than their employers or the Adams administration — for the recent setbacks and enduring problems, which include workers being sporadically locked out of access to the apps they depend on to make a living.

They also claim, without offering evidence, that Guallpa has done little to help delivery workers achieve justice and to keep them safe on the city’s streets. They and other dissenters have called on her to quit, and for the organization to dissolve Los Deliveristas Unidos.

Guallpa said in a recent interview that the organization remains focused on securing minimum pay standards.

“We have to make sure that workers come full force in support of a minimal pay and to make sure that the administration doesn’t bend and keep undermining and watering down the minimum pay rate,” she said.

When she spoke with THE CITY in late March, she said the group — from its bare bones office in Williamsburg — handles an average of 20 to 25 cases a day regarding delivery workers, in addition to its services on behalf of other workers in precarious industries. In an interview on Tuesday, she said the group had recovered more than $50,000 in back wages for delivery workers in recent weeks.

Fearing Unintended Consequences

Like some of the workers and current Deliveristas leaders THE CITY interviewed, Guallpa emphasized that they’re facing off against the companies, not other workers.

“When we win, we will do a thorough accounting of what it took for us to get here,” she added.

Ajche acknowledged that the minimum pay fight “was never going to be easy” and noted that the companies “were always going to watch for how they can get the most profits off of our labor.” He, like every other delivery worker interviewed by THE CITY, spoke in Spanish.

“I want to be clear: the minimum pay rate is coming. It’s important to underscore that it is now the law,” Ajche said in an interview on Tuesday. “This is just now the final push to implement what we already won.”

One of those former Los Deliveristas Unidos leaders, Manny Ramírez, not only joined calls for Guallpa’s ouster but has also come out against the minimum pay standards, concerned that they will lead to higher prices and caps on the number of delivery shifts workers get.

Delivery workers gathered at Union Square Park on Friday afternoon March 31, 2023 to demand the Deliveristas Unidos and their leadership step aside from creating legislation.
Manny Ramírez at Union Square Park, March 31, 2023. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“If we get a higher wage, we don’t want customers to bear the brunt of that burden,” said Ramírez in a recent interview. Currently, workers are paid per delivery. The wage proposal would guarantee pay for the time they are on the streets, even when they are not handling an order.

Ramírez added that the minimum pay rate, even though it won’t be in effect for months, is already luring more delivery workers to the streets, so many that the apps sometimes lock drivers out from taking on new jobs. It’s a practice that many of the key companies in the industry have engaged in for several years, even before Los Deliveristas Unidos materialized.

According to the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) study from November, some apps, including DoorDash and Grubhub, sometimes restrict workers’ access to accounts during periods of low customer demand in a practice known as “gating.” Ramírez himself during his time in the WJP volunteered helping workers regain access to their accounts.

Industry reps threaten the practice will become more common once the hourly wage guarantees kick in.

“I’ve stopped delivering in Manhattan, because there are too many workers,” Ramírez said. He now delivers in The Bronx. Some of the app companies’ own numbers suggest otherwise: For example, UberEats had 3.4% fewer couriers in New York City in March 2023 than in March of last year, a spokesperson said.

Apps Fight Back

In the days and weeks before the DCWP’s Dec. 16 hearing on the pay program, companies blanketed workers’ apps with pop-up messages encouraging them to oppose the city’s minimum pay proposal. DoorDash’s message to workers read “that the City’s proposed pay regulations would encourage platforms … to restrict workers’ ability to choose which deliveries they accept or when they work.”

Hundreds of workers who identified as working for Uber ultimately submitted comments for the hearing, urging the city to retool its proposal.

“The reason why I choose to deliver with Uber is because I enjoy the full flexibility to pick which days of the week, hours of the day, and parts of the city I work in,” hundreds of workers wrote in English and Spanish, using language from a form letter. “I don’t want to compete with workers for the best time slots and I don’t want to be locked out of apps. I urge you not to force apps to take away my freedom & flexibility.”

It was a sentiment echoed by the scores of anti-union workers who picketed the canceled Workers Justice Project fundraiser three months later.

“What’s going to happen when the apps begin locking us out?” one speaker asked in Spanish in a moment captured on Facebook Live. “We’ll go to the union, and tell them what happened and they’ll go ‘Oh, too bad, you’re no longer a delivery worker. But when you are, come back and we’ll help you.’” (Neither Los Deliveristas Unidos nor the Workers Justice Project is a union, and app-based food delivery workers, who are independent contractors, cannot unionize.)

Ajche, who delivers in downtown Manhattan, said that he is “proud of the movement” that Los Deliveristas Unidos built.

“In a movement of 65,000 people, not everyone is going to see things the same way,” he said, referencing the estimated number of workers in this industry in New York as of 2021. “But this movement is strong, and we’re determined to continue to defend our rights and make our voices heard.”

The city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection said the current rule rewrite is needed to account for the fact that many workers deliver for more than one app at the same time, a practice known as “multi-apping.”

In a March 21 letter to the DCWP co-signed by several City Council members and the Brooklyn borough president, city Comptroller Brad Lander lambasted the Adams administration for its reversal on the minimum pay rate, suggesting the reversal was “the result of potentially unreported lobbying by the app companies.

“These multi-billion dollar corporations have established a business model based on denying basic workers’ rights to some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers,” Lander wrote to DCWP Commissioner Vilda Vera Mayuga. “It would be appalling if the City of New York imposed a subminimum wage and a months-long delay even for workers to receive it as a result of corporate lobbying.”

Trying Again

In response to the letter, DCWP spokesperson Michael Lanza said in a statement, “We received nearly 2,000 public comments on the initial proposed rule from workers, apps, and the public, and made changes based on that feedback.

“We want to make sure we get this right, so we are holding another opportunity for public comment to ensure all stakeholders have another opportunity to review, ask questions, and make suggestions,” Lanza said.

Uber spokesman Josh Gold said the company is “very opposed” to the minimum pay rate proposed by the city and would testify against it, as it did in December.

Gold said the proposed regulations will lead Uber to “gate” workers out of their accounts during certain periods, as its competitors already do — a scenario envisioned in the DCWP’s own wage report. Uber has already locked its New York City rideshare drivers out in response to a minimum wage program for those gig workers, he noted.

Deliverista Sergio Ajche speaks at a City Hall battery bill signing.
Deliverista Sergio Ajche speaks at a City Hall battery bill signing, March 20, 2023. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The agency’s suggestion is to condition future work opportunities on workers’ performance during on-call time, giving preference and platform access to workers who accept a certain proportion of trips. The report specifically says that we should gate access and actually calls out UberEats for not gating access,” Gold said. “So it might be our choice, but it’s at the suggestion of the agency that we lock workers out.”

DoorDash is also expected to testify in opposition to the revised proposal, company spokesperson Eli Scheinholtz told THE CITY. Representatives for Grubhub and Relay, other major players, did not respond to requests for comment.

Guallpa told THE CITY that the current profound divisions among workers were driven by “fear” whipped up in the heated climate.

“It’s about the fear of asking for more, and what it is going to mean,” either because some workers may believe they “don’t deserve it, or because ‘we’re gonna lose our jobs,’” she said.

Uber Redux

One of the major food delivery platforms, Uber, has been down a similar road before, organizing workers in line with corporate priorities.

In 2016, Uber launched the Independent Drivers Guild, a sham union bankrolled by the company in partnership with the International Association of Machinists that critics say has since lobbied against reforms, including driver caps and minimum pay standards in New York City that have been in effect since 2018.

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance — the pro-wage union representing cabbies and some rideshare drivers — said that she’s not surprised to see Uber and other companies leveraging their considerable influence to quash regulations.

Desai said it’s simply not true that workers will lose their choice over which jobs to pick up or which app to work for.

“They literally just lie and misrepresent the impact of the city’s policies. And the city, for its failure, doesn’t really set the record straight,” she told THE CITY in an interview. “The city should be putting up notices that say, ‘Here is why this is a lie’ — but they don’t do that.”

The companies, she added from her experience organizing drivers, “know that their kryptonite is worker organizing. Uber, since 2016, has made it a part of their business practice to directly interfere with worker organizing.”

Anti-Deliveristas Unidos

The struggles within Los Deliveristas Unidos can be traced back to November’s initial rollout of the minimum wage plan, based on a detailed economic study required by the City Council.

The proposal guaranteed hourly wages including operating costs of $23.87 an hour by 2025, plus tips — a significant bump from the $11 hourly the city estimates workers currently earn after tips.

Workers were happy with the city’s initial plan, with some confiding with THE CITY at the time that the proposed pay rate exceeded their low expectations.

But according to several people involved in internal conversations, Guallpa and Maria Figueroa — a labor researcher who sits on WJP’s board of directors — lobbied worker-leaders to push for even more money: $30 an hour, as it had in October.

Delivery workers gathered at Union Square Park on Friday afternoon March 31, 2023 to demand the Deliveristas Unidos and their leadership step aside from creating legislation.
A sign at a protest against Deliveristas leadership at Union Square Park, March 31, 2023. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Guallpa, Figueroa and others emphasized in interviews with THE CITY that the majority of worker-leaders made the decision to formally respond to the Adams administration’s proposal by requesting it increase the minimum pay rate by $5 to account for operating costs, in part.

Yet the lack of support from fellow workers and leaders was evident in a confusing press conference outside City Hall in November: While dozens of workers had previously shown up to WJP’s public events, this time only a small handful turned out to drum up support for the $30 hourly counterproposal. Ramírez, Galvez and other leaders were no-shows.

Before the end of 2022, Ramírez, Galvez and another leader, Héctor Manzano, defected from the Deliveristas.

In the months since, WJP’s policy director, two staff organizers, and a staff case manager also left the organization. Guallpa said the staff departures have not had an impact on the organization’s ability to serve its members, and pointed that the organization is growing.

Workers Justice Project is moving to a larger space in Williamsburg, expanding its staff, and plowing ahead with building planned delivery worker hubs in Manhattan.

As the Deliveristas get ready to battle the companies again for minimum pay standards in an upcoming April 7 public hearing, a growing group of workers has been turning the heat up on the Workers Justice Project. In March, delivery worker Octavio López disrupted a pay-rate press conference for more than an hour with a diatribe that attacked the organization as “farsantes” — phonies.

López, who toils on the Upper East Side, is an active member of “ANTIDELIVERISTASUNIDOS,” a group that has directly targeted the organization and its leadership.

Speaking with THE CITY, he said that he was against New York’s proposed minimum pay rate “because once companies begin compensating us hourly, we won’t have the option to reject orders. That’s not suitable for delivery workers.”

The revised proposal allows companies to continue paying workers per trip, but at a higher rate.

Still, he said, he supported better wages: “These companies need to pay us a minimum wage, and they need to be transparent about how they pay us our tips.”

Besides López’s disruption and the protest last month in front of the canceled fundraiser, workers have also picketed outside the group’s Brooklyn headquarters. Several Los Deliveristas Unidos leaders said they’ve received threats against their safety from fellow delivery workers on the streets and on social media.

On social media, disgruntled workers have posted videos of themselves ripping off Deliveristas-branded stickers from their bikes, helmets, and gear, and attacking leaders — Guallpa and Ajche in particular — on social media.

Meanwhile, the organization continues to tee up for Friday’s hearing: Los Deliveristas Unidos have gathered nearly 300 comments supporting the minimum pay rate as of Tuesday, and are continuing to engage members in support of the proposed pay rates, several people said.

“There are obstacles in every struggle, and winning’s never easy,” said Antonio “Toño” Solís, a delivery worker in Astoria and a Los Deliveristas Unidos leader. “Like in any situation, there are ups and downs, but you pick yourself back up and fight back stronger than ever.”

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