Food delivery apps such as SkipTheDishes, DoorDash and Uber Eats enable precarious work conditions. Photo: iStock/kyonntra

The human cost of food delivery apps

All the obligations of an employee, but none of the protections.’

Alberta needs independent journalism right now.

Sign me up!

At The Sprawl, we want to hire another journalist to dig into stories that others won't. Join our community and help us grow our independent newsroom! You can sign up for as little as $5 a month. By pitching in, you're making our journalism sustainable.

Ordering from food delivery apps such as SkipTheDishes, DoorDash and Uber Eats can be appealing from a consumer perspective, especially when you’re spending a lot more time at home due to COVID-19. It’s quick, convenient and relatively inexpensive—you can see your order coming to you in real time.

But it’s easy to ignore what it’s like on the other side—the drivers doing precarious work to make profit for a large company that insists they’re not actually employees, and the smaller restaurants who have no meaningful choice but to give these companies a cut of their margins lest they risk losing out to their competitors.

Chris Picek, a Calgary-based chef, has delivered for SkipTheDishes on and off since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March. He says the gig economy (of which these delivery apps are a product) provides a decent way to make some money alongside more consistent work, but is unsustainable as a primary source of income.

“The redeeming feature of it for me is that it’s flexible,” said Picek. “You can work basically whenever you want, or as much or as little as you want, but that’s where the goodness ends. You have all the obligations of an employee, but none of the protections. That’s really where it breaks apart.”

'An errand boy for capitalists'

The lure of these gigs can be attractive. Who doesn’t want to be their own boss and set their own schedule based on their needs?

But once one reflects on where all the money is going, there’s clearly cause for concern. Picek described the industry as “serving as the errand boy for capitalists.”

These apps pay their couriers solely based on commission and tips, with all the fluctuations that entails.

All these apps pay their couriers solely based on commission and tips, with all the fluctuations that entails. “The income is extremely inconsistent,” Picek said. “It’s difficult to know what you’re going to get. Some months you do really well and some months you don’t.”

Richard, who asked that his actual name be withheld to avoid damaging his future employment prospects, is a wastewater technician who delivered for DoorDash in Calgary while doing construction work for a temp agency after struggling to finding work in his field.

“The economics of being a driver is sort of abysmal,” he said. Drivers have to pay the cost of upgrading their auto insurance, as well as the price of gas. Richard estimates that he made about $4 or $5 per delivery after these externalities.

If I received a parking ticket, that would wipe out a week’s worth of wages.

Richard,

Delivery app driver

The DoorDash app encourages drivers to deliver in high-density areas, where there’s more restaurants but less parking available. In order to get more high-volume orders, which net more cash, the app expects you to be on time all the time.

“The app can get rather insistent if you’re not meeting their expected times. The only way to meet their times is to park illegally sometimes," said Richard. “Luckily I didn’t, but if I received a parking ticket, that would wipe out a week’s worth of wages.”

A restaurant’s perspective

In Lethbridge, Two Guys Pizza eschews SkipTheDishes, DoorDash and other apps in favour of its own delivery app—which they developed in response to the proliferation of delivery apps.

“Over time we developed a big delivery business,” said owner Cory Medd about their 18-year-old restaurant. “We have our own contract drivers who’ve worked here for many years. They know the system, they know the customer. They’re employees of mine.”

But at what expense do I want my own customers to go to the SkipTheDishes app?

Cory Medd,

Owner, Two Guys Pizza

In 2012, representatives of SkipTheDishes came to Two Guys Pizza to try and get them on board, which was a tough sell because they already had a solid customer base, Medd says.

But last year it became clear that the apps were serving as a form of competition with his own, Medd says. A benefit from the customer’s standpoint is that they can track the driver with SkipTheDishes and pay online, neither of which the Two Guys app offers.

“It’s a good app, it’s a well-organized app and customers are obviously using it,” said Medd about SkipTheDishes. “But at what expense do I want my own customers to go to the SkipTheDishes app? Where all of a sudden I don’t have control.”

The Two Guys app allows the restaurant to interact directly with their customers if there’s an issue with their order, rather than doing it through a third party.

He had to weigh the increased exposure SkipTheDishes may have provided with the 15 to 30% cut they take from orders, which depends on location and order volume.

But then COVID-19 happened and increased their delivery and takeout orders after their dining room had to shut down. Had he gone with an external delivery app, Medd says he would have likely had to increase prices, which he hasn’t done since 2017.

There’s no choice. It’s operation survival’ for [restaurants] during COVID-19 and we have to do whatever it takes.

Cory Medd,

Owner, Two Guys Pizza

“I can see why some of the restaurants were forced to jump on,” said Medd. “There’s no choice. It’s ‘operation survival’ for [restaurants] during COVID-19 and we have to do whatever it takes.”

There’s a certain privilege afforded by being an established local business in a smaller city that new restaurants in a big city don't have. “If I was to open in Calgary or a second market, I might even make my business model third-party friendly,” Medd said.

“In a big city, you just got lost in the shuffle and a lot of people just go to their phones… You gotta get your foot in the door somehow.”

Earlier this week, a group of 24 Calgary food companies launched Best of Calgary Foods—a delivery service that is owned and operated by the collective.

Some of the companies had previously tried using third-party delivery companies, but weren’t happy.

“Most of our companies could not afford the fees and commission, or at least not in any way that was sustainable to our businesses,” says the collective's website.

A ‘dystopian’ model

From a driver’s perspective, there’s a lack of transparency in figuring out how your pay is calculated.

Picek says this is an issue affecting the broader courier industry, where he’s also worked, but the atomization represented by the app provides an extra-eerie element. “You know what you’re getting paid for the trip, but you don’t know why,” he said.

“You’re not even sure who or what you’re working for. Yeah, you’re driving for SkipTheDishes, but it almost has this dystopian feature to it—you’re literally being directed by an app, by an algorithm, and have zero contact with anyone.”

It’s this trend that we’ve been on for a while of more and more convenience for less and less.

Chris Picek,

Delivery app driver

Richard’s experience is similar, and he contrasts the face-to-face interaction for customers with a complete lack of inter-courier interaction. “The onboarding process was pretty paperwork-heavy without very much human interaction,” Richard said.

“The actual experience of delivering for them was not bad at all. You’re mostly working with customer service workers and customers are usually pretty friendly. But the way that drivers interact through the app is extremely alienating.”

The gig economy is a product of a much larger societal shift to precarious labour, Picek observed. “Expectations are generally being lowered for a lot of industries,” he said. “They are going down and have gone down, and you take it or leave.”

“It’s this trend that we’ve been on for a while of more and more convenience for less and less [money and protections]. The price doesn’t necessarily reflect that.”

Picek likens this model to that of big-box stores like Walmart, who are able to provide cheap goods to customers on the backs of their workers.

“If the price is cheap on whatever you’re buying,” he said. “It means that someone along the chain of you... is getting screwed. It’s not just being given away at a cheap price because someone has a good heart.”

SkipTheDishes and DoorDash didn't respond to The Sprawl's request to explain how couriers are compensated.

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.



We want to hear from you! Send letters to the editor to hello@sprawlcalgary.com.

Alberta needs independent journalism right now.

Sign me up!

At The Sprawl, we want to hire another journalist to dig into stories that others won't. Join our community and help us grow our independent newsroom! You can sign up for as little as $5 a month. By pitching in, you're making our journalism sustainable.