Head-to-head: In the age of COVID-19, Should Food Delivery Companies Provide more Benefits to their Workers?

In this head-to-head, UCSD Guardian Opinion writer’s Sean Kim and Pankhuri Kohli present different views on how to help food delivery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pankhuri Kohli – Yes!

During the time of COVID-19, delivery workers who work for food and grocery companies are crucial in providing normalcy. They deliver food and essential items and help local businesses stay afloat. Furthermore, since so many college students order online and participate in related jobs, this issue impacts us deeply. However, despite the significant role delivery workers play in our lives, they do not receive proper compensation and support. In the midst of a global pandemic, such conditions put delivery people and their consumers at risk. Thus, while COVID-19 remains an imminent threat, delivery companies need to provide better pay and benefits for their delivery workers. 

Since the pandemic began, more than 36 million people have filed for unemployment. Still, the unique demands of the pandemic mean that the gig economy, which consists of temporary and flexible job positions, has been one of the few sectors hiring. Usually, delivery workers work for supplemental income, flexible hours, and the freedom to work for multiple companies. However, current conditions have increasingly made delivery work people’s primary job. In fact, almost a third of gig workers work full-time in their jobs. Despite changing circumstances though, delivery jobs do not offer minimum wage, overtime pay, and benefits such as insurance and paid sick leave. While these conditions make sense when people have the choice to treat delivery work as supplemental, that is increasingly not the case. Thus, treating all delivery jobs as supplemental endangers the well-being of workers who work full-time and rely primarily on these jobs for basic necessities.

In addition to short-changing workers, the lack of benefits and adequate pay hurts customers as well. Since companies underpay workers, delivery workers rely on customer tips to make ends meet. As a result, worker pay becomes volatile even though customers taking on the burden to pay more does not guarantee them better service. This adds stress for workers and puts additional burden on customers without benefit to either party. To make matters worse, like most essential workers, delivery workers are constantly exposed to the coronavirus. However, their limited access to protective gear, health care, or paid sick leave incentivizes working when sick, increasing the risk of infection for consumers. Consequently, delivery workers’ access to health care and paid sick leave is imperative not only to their own but also to their communities’ well-being. 

Moreover, bettering working conditions for delivery workers ensures that they benefit from the profit companies make from their labor. While countless companies have lost money due to the pandemic, tech companies such as those employing delivery workers have been the least affected. Ensuring that companies adequately take care of delivery workers provides them their fair share for bolstering companies in this trying time. Additionally, while companies and their shareholders make profit, many delivery workers have to use unemployment benefits to survive, despite the fact that their employers do not contribute to these payments. The need for delivery workers to use social safety nets unfairly burdens taxpayers. Furthermore, the government having to protect workers who should be protected by the employers they make money for takes away funds from other necessary services, which is particularly detrimental in this time of crisis. Additionally, in a broader economic sense, paying workers fairly is imperative to recover from the current financial crisis because without workers who can buy goods and services, we do not have consumers. 

Ultimately, the COVID-19 crisis continues to exacerbate inequities in our current economic system, such as the unequal burden put on workers to sustain risk. Moreover, companies need to ensure delivery workers are protected for the sake of their consumers too, especially as worker health is also community health. Additionally, ensuring adequate pay and benefits for delivery workers is a necessary step in removing unfair burdens from workers and taxpayers and ensuring economic recovery. To truly recover and learn from the lessons of this pandemic, companies must provide delivery workers fair compensation and necessary benefits.

Sean Kim – No!

The age of COVID-19 has led many to shutter in their homes for weeks on end. One solace for many is food delivery, in which people can get their favorite foods ordered to their homes. But during a pandemic, the concerns around the health of delivery drivers are now more important than ever. Many drivers face significantly higher risks of contracting COVID-19 –– they need to be in physical contact with the general public in order to be able to deliver food. Despite this, delivery drivers do not have access to benefits such as paid leave nor health insurance. But while drivers should absolutely have access to health insurance in one form or another, health insurance and other essential benefits that are tied to one specific employer could ultimately harm the workers more than it could help them.

Delivery drivers for services such as DoorDash, UberEats, Postmates, and the like are not legally classified as regular employees — they are independent contractors. As such, labor laws like minimum wage and mandates for full-time benefits do not apply to them. While these are the downsides of being an independent contractor, the flip side of such a status is the flexibility and independence that such workers theoretically have; the Internal Revenue Service has mandated that companies cannot exert a great deal of control over contractors on how they do their jobs. And as someone who worked as a driver before the pandemic, this lack of control was clear. Delivery apps themselves could not determine when, where, and how I worked. I could determine when and how long I wanted to work. Any shift could stop at any time, purely at my discretion, and the company could not exert control over that fact. And in my specific situation, the flexibility afforded me the ability to pick my own hours and not have to work when I had lots of schoolwork. 

But new challenges in the context of COVID-19 have made many question the morality of such a classification. And this view is understandable –– drivers should have access to things such as health insurance. However, the problem lies in whom the insurance should come from. Insurance from the company itself could be problematic; insurance through an unaffiliated third party would not. Despite this, many point to the health insurance that many employee-classified workers have access to from their employers and draw an analogy to other independent contractors. At the surface, mandating that delivery apps provide health insurance to their workers makes a lot of sense. However, such a position misunderstands the differences in how these jobs work. Independent contractors do not necessarily work for one specific company, and their jobs depend on the flexibility afforded to them by being independent.

Mandating that the company itself provide health insurance could have a major unforeseen consequence for independent contractors: dependence on the company for health insurance benefits. This can be problematic for drivers who work for more than one service, which is quite often the more profitable thing to do. This is because it is more efficient to have multiple services running and looking for orders in order to reduce one’s downtime and therefore lost money. For example, in my case, running the DoorDash, Postmates, and UberEats driver apps simultaneously was the fastest and easiest way to receive more orders. For such drivers who work full-time, determining which company should provide health insurance would be fundamentally unclear. This is due to the fact that in a proper independent contractor relationship, the company is the contractor’s client — not their manager.

Furthermore, even if such vagueness could be resolved, the driver could ultimately end up becoming dependent on the delivery service for their health insurance. Should the companies themselves be forced into providing health insurance for their workers, it would not be far-fetched to predict future exclusivity arrangements or merely a minimum number of orders required between the driver and the service. Such arrangements would erode the flexibility that such workers need as part of their jobs. Companies in the industry have also shown in the past that worker exploitation, such as tip theft, is not off the table. Such a dependence creates vulnerability, in which drivers would be unable to leave a service and head to better paying apps due to the health insurance they depend on from that company. In a time of a pandemic, such dependence is enhanced even further. While employee-classified workers face similar challenges and dependencies, they are already dependent on their specific employer because of the nature of their jobs; employer-employee statuses are defined by the exclusivity of the worker to the company, while such a standard does not apply to independent contractors.

By mandating company-specific insurance, delivery drivers may face a “worst of both worlds” type of situation: they would face the lack of flexibility that employees have while also facing the vulnerable nature of their employment that comes with contractor work. However, if health insurance is provided for by an external, uninvolved party, such as subsidized private insurance or government programs like Medicare, the need for health insurance for these workers could be met while also acknowledging the downsides such a mandate would bring. Health insurance for these workers should absolutely be a given, but mandating company-paid insurance would ultimately make the nature of their jobs more complicated and difficult.