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Bills on food delivery apps don't include the human toll on workers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In New York, food delivery workers zip around on electric bikes, adding to already chaotic streets. NPR's Bobby Allyn delivered food with one of the workers to understand the challenges they face.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: I meet Gustavo Ache (ph) in Lower Manhattan. He's making sure his e-bike is charged up and mounting his phone on his handlebars.

GUSTAVO ACHE: Now I'm going to connect it to the app, so we're going to start working.

ALLYN: Ache's story is familiar - an immigrant from Guatemala, father of two. He got laid off from his food delivery job during the pandemic and started delivering food for apps like DoorDash and Grubhub.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

ALLYN: He says he swapped his human boss for something else.

ACHE: Patron fantasma - it's like a ghost boss.

ALLYN: Ghost boss - that's what Ache and his friends call the food delivery apps monitoring their every move and pressuring them to go faster and faster to hungry customers waiting for their orders. But he's given little support if his bike breaks or if he's robbed or injured. Last year, Ache fell after his bike wiped out on black ice. He notified the apps.

ACHE: If you need assistance, we can call 911, but that's the best thing we can do for you. That's what they send to you.

ALLYN: How did that make you feel?

ACHE: Sad because you're working for them.

ALLYN: To see what it's like to work for a delivery app, I followed Ache. Our first stop - McDonald's. Someone ordered a single cheeseburger for dinner.

Oh, boy. Taking a turn now - where are we? Church Street.

It was hard to keep up with him.

Trying now to catch up to Gustavo. I'm being powered by my legs, and he's got an e-bike that goes up to 30 miles an hour, so it's got a bit of an edge on me.

Biking in Manhattan is always a little hectic but especially so when you are flying.

We just had to curve around a parked ambulance. There is a bus that nearly hit us a few moments ago.

We arrive at a condo building, tell the door guy what we're doing...

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR BEEPING)

ACHE: There you go.

ALLYN: ...Go up to the eighth floor and knock on the door of the person who ordered the burger by tapping on his phone a few times.

ACHE: Hi. How are you doing? Here you go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi.

ACHE: Goodnight. Thank you. Goodnight.

ALLYN: And we're off to the next delivery. But things don't always go this smooth.

DO JUN LEE: When the customer sees their bill from, like, Grubhub or DoorDash, you know, they see different fees and costs of the items and the tip. But what's not listed on the bill is the human toll on the worker.

ALLYN: Do Jun Lee is an urban studies professor at Queens College who has extensively studied the city's delivery workers.

LEE: What they have to pay out of pocket - the robberies and assaults that they experience, the broken leg that they got while delivering.

ALLYN: A recent survey of 500 delivery workers conducted by the Workers Justice Project and Cornell University found that more than half have gotten into an accident or crash while doing a delivery, and about half have had their bike stolen. Ache says now during late night shifts, delivery workers will cross bridges in large packs to ward off would-be thieves.

ACHE: You never know who going to confront. You never know who's going to be trying to steal your bike - maybe somebody with a gun.

ALLYN: He's never been held up at gunpoint, but the uptick in robberies and injuries led Ache to help form a group called the United Delivery Workers. They got the New York City Council to pass new protections like finally being able to use the bathroom in restaurants they're delivering for.

ACHE: OK, this is good. But what about security? Security was the main problem in the street.

ALLYN: Ache wants better lighting installed on dark bridges and crimes against delivery workers to be taken more seriously. He says his message to people ordering food through these apps is this. Workers are often pulling 12-, 13-, 14-hour shifts for maybe 200 or $300 a night. He says they're moving as fast as they can.

ACHE: They calling you, and they texting you, where's my food? And then sometimes it's not the delivery worker's problem when the food's getting to you cold.

ALLYN: The tech companies tout the so-called frictionless delivery services, but Ache will be quick to tell you getting you that cheeseburger involves a lot of friction.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF KONDOR'S "JAZZ INFLUENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.