When Uber launched its courier service, UberRUSH, two years ago, the company aggressively courted New York City’s bike messengers with the high hourly rate of $30 plus bonuses. “When UberRUSH first started out you made real bread,” says Gabriel Arjara, twenty, from the Bronx, who has been a bike messenger since he was fourteen. One week, Arjara says, he made close to $4,500. “Dudes were eating lobster for lunch,” Arjara says.
But within six months, workers say, the hourly rates began to drop, gradually, five dollars at a time, until bottoming out at around a $5 per diem for local deliveries. Likewise, the percentage of delivery commissions paid to UberRUSH messengers, who deliver everything from dress patents to sex toys, but who deliver more food than anything else, declined as well, from a high of 90 percent down to 50.
It was “cuts, more cuts, more cuts, and more cuts,” says Apple, 26, a Manhattan-based bike messenger who declined to give his real name for attribution, fearing workplace retaliation from Uber and other employers. Lefty, a 27-year-old bike messenger from Brooklyn, who sometimes still works for Uber, put it like this: “I used to have $130 in my pocket before noon, and now we got to work until six or seven o’clock to make $90 or less.”
UberRUSH did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Another messenger, Slack, a 29-year-old from the Bronx, points out that UberRUSH, whose website promises to deliver for “Faster than you can imagine. For less than you’ll believe,” has forced other messenger services to lower their wages as well.
“They’re driving down the rates that other messenger services are paying,” Slack says. “They’re making it harder for couriers to pay bills and have a decent standard of living.”
Cari Vuong, a principal in the operator-owned Valkyrie Messenger service, echoed these concerns.
“Our business is being cut into because Uber doesn’t pay workers’ compensation, so they can charge less. Drastically less.”
Besides that, Vuong said, by not playing by the rules, Uber has made it more difficult for him to expand into other areas of business.
In short, Vuong says, “If you’re with UberRUSH you’re with the Walmart of the messenger world.”
UberRUSH has also affected an industry that has traditionally been one of the few legitimate employment opportunities that take prospective workers as they are, regardless of whatever mistakes they may have made in the past. “This is one of the last jobs you can do with a record,” says longtime messenger Rigoberto Elicier, 33.
With UberRUSH, background checks are mandatory, and many bicycle messengers are finding themselves without work and the opportunity to earn a lawful income because of crimes they committed long ago — or for mere arrests that never turned into convictions.
Mitchell Vedic, 48, began working for the company in late March. Then, one day in early July, after completing a delivery, Mitchell’s UberRUSH app suddenly went dark, without any notice or explanation. Mitchell went to UberRUSH’s New York City headquarters in Chelsea, where he encountered five other UberRUSH messengers whose apps, like Mitchell’s, all suddenly deactivated.
“We all got fired. You know what the girl said?” Mitchell said, referring to the UberRUSH employee. “ ‘You have a history.’ ”
Even for some workers without criminal convictions, UberRUSH’s background check process creates hardships. Mello, a thirty-year-old Bronx-born messenger, said UberRUSH had subjected him to three background checks in one year. Each time, Mello says, his UberRUSH app was deactivated for two to three weeks and he was deprived of work while the process played out.
In November, the messengers organized a larger protest, supported by a Facebook page, for December 1. The protest included a work stoppage and a demonstration to be held at the UberRUSH office. “We all talked about it,” Apple says. “It was so wrong how they were doing us.”
Uber tried to undercut the protest by offering a $50 bonus for any messenger who worked that day. It didn’t work. At least forty bike messengers showed up. A representative from Uber promised changes, but none materialized. Most of the experienced, professional couriers left UberRUSH.
“After the strike, we all quit Uber,” says Gabriel. “Some of us went back to work for the companies we worked for before UberRUSH started. Some moved away to other places. Other people went on to college. Some people started selling drugs.”
To Mello, the bottom line is that “they pay chump change. It’s not the company to work for.”