Delivering meals by bicycle is the type of work that constantly reminds the people who do it that they are squarely at the bottom of New York City’s food chain. Hustling for tips in heat, rain, snow and cold, looked down upon by doormen, despised by pedestrians, these workers, often undocumented immigrants from China or Latin America, are ubiquitous in New York’s streets yet all but voiceless in its power structure.
“The general public has a bad view of us,” says Xiaodeng Chen, who arrived from Fujian province in 2007 at the age of 18 and began working a number of jobs, including at a restaurant in Sunset Park. “[Being a] delivery worker is unique. It was the only one that was humiliating,” he says. “It was unbearable. So stressful.”
There are 50,000 delivery cyclists in New York City, according to an estimate cited by the Department of Transportation in 2012. The problems they face are tied to a wide range of societal ills, from immigration policy to traffic safety to the perils of low-wage work.
Under pressure from police, employers and tipping customers, the very nature of delivery work leaves little room for organizing beyond casual interactions at bicycle repair shops around the city.
“The way the employment is structured, you’re an independent contractor,” says Mario Giampieri, who began delivering cookies, chicken fingers and burritos as a student at New York University before taking a job delivering pizza in Williamsburg. Giampieri, who is half-Argentinian and bilingual, knew that as an NYU student he was in a different caste than most other delivery cyclists. “It’s very solitary work,” he says. “You might not see the other people, just because you’re so busy.”
Delivery workers are typically paid at or just above New York’s tipped minimum wage, currently $4.50 for restaurants with 10 or fewer employees, though undocumented workers are often coerced into getting paid less. Tips drive the total higher; Giampieri says he usually earned $100 to $140 over an eight-hour shift.
Some restaurants are known for abusing their workers, but others have good reputations. While Chen kept track of wage theft by one of his employers in Manhattan, Giampieri says the Williamsburg pizzeria he worked for treated him well. His previous gigs in Manhattan were not as kind.
“The way you’re treated from the beginning is, ‘You don’t really work here. We’re not together in any of this,’” Giampieri says. “I found they were willing to cut pay and treat you poorly, so they can push you out the door and hire someone else for even less money.”
“Many people take this job because they have no other options,” Chen says, adding that while the advent of tech companies like Amazon and Uber has shifted responsibility away from sometimes-abusive individual restaurants, the hyper-efficient apps have also flooded the market with delivery workers and driven down pay. Uber takes a 20 percent cut, one East Village delivery worker told the Voice, leaving him anywhere from $80 to $100 over a 10-hour shift. “It’s truly a community that’s so vulnerable, that has no power to organize at all,” Chen says.
One of the most immediate challenges for delivery workers is the legal gray area occupied by electric-assist bicycles. Powered by a battery and pedals, these bikes help workers cover more ground and make more tips. Older delivery cyclists, in particular, rely on e-bikes because they reduce stress on the body and help them reach the far corners of a restaurant’s delivery zone, making them more appealing to hire.
“It’s not possible for people over the age of 45 to do this kind of work,” says Chen, who used a regular bike to make deliveries. “It’s mostly older men on the e-bike.”
The federal government considers e-bikes to be bicycles, so they are legal to manufacture and purchase, but the moment they hit the road, New York state law classifies them as illegal motor vehicles driven by unlicensed operators. Other states have fixed this discrepancy, often with the goal of promoting e-bikes for senior citizens, but efforts to bring New York in line with federal rules have repeatedly stalled in the state legislature.
This gray area gives NYPD an opportunity to respond to constituent complaints about delivery cyclists by hitting these low-income workers where it hurts most: their bicycles. Precincts on the Upper East and Upper West sides often make a show of going after cyclists, particularly delivery workers. In January the 19th Precinct proudly tweeted a photo of e-bikes it had confiscated. The 9th Precinct did the same on Wednesday.
Elected officials have joined the war against e-bikes: in December, East Side councilmen Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos issued a “report card” grading restaurants. Establishments that used e-bikes for delivery automatically received failing grades. Kallos told the Voice that he would like to see doormen refuse entry to delivery workers using e-bikes.
This legal black hole has serious consequences for delivery workers, who have to pay fines up to $500 each time police decide to seize their e-bikes.
“Police give out tickets based on their mood,” says De Quan Lu, speaking through an interpreter. “Hundreds of delivery workers come to me for help.”
Lu runs Chinese Mutual Groups Inc., a Fujianese assistance organization, out of a second-floor room on Canal Street. Handwritten posters on the wall list the names of people who have donated to the organization. About half of the people seeking help from Lu’s group are delivery workers, he says. Many of them connect to food delivery jobs through a Fujianese job-placement company around the corner.
Lu, who used to work as a delivery cyclist himself after immigrating in 1992, now acts as an intermediary between cyclists, the police and politicians. During the recent Lunar New Year parade, he walked around Chinatown, stopping in at Mahjong parlors and saying hello to people on the street with the swagger of a ward boss. A few days later, he was in the office of Council Member Margaret Chin with a delivery cyclist who needed help fighting tickets.
Many delivery cyclists do not speak English and have nothing more than an elementary education. “I didn’t understand why I was arrested,” Lin Yong Di, a 52-year-old delivery cyclist from Queens who works in Midtown East, says through an interpreter. Di, who relies on his e-bike after a leg injury made it difficult to ride a regular bicycle, sought help from Lu’s organization so he could understand court proceedings and get his e-bike returned, but he still regularly gets tickets from police.
The NYPD doesn’t just seize e-bikes and ticket delivery workers for common infractions like riding the wrong way or running a red light. The city also has a suite of commercial cycling laws just for delivery workers, requiring them, for example, to wear reflective vests and helmets provided by their employers.
While NYPD targets cyclists on the street, DOT’s Commercial Bicycle Unit, comprised of five inspectors and a supervisor, is in charge of holding safety forums for delivery workers, partnering with local elected officials for safety equipment giveaways and enforcing the rules for employers.
“This unit in no way issues summonses to delivery cyclists,” says Kim Wiley-Schwartz, DOT’s assistant commissioner for education and outreach. In the 12 months beginning July 2015, the department visited 5,240 businesses and issued 2,017 summonses in every borough except Staten Island, for infractions like failing to keep a roster of delivery workers, post safety information, or provide equipment.
Just like NYPD, DOT focuses heavily on the Upper East and Upper West sides. “Even though there’s not a different concentration of restaurants compared to the rest of Manhattan, there’s something about the geography there that brings in more complaints,” Wiley-Schwartz says. “One of the biggest concerns that everyone has is electric bicycles and the gray area of the law when it comes to electric bicycles, and we end up fielding a lot of questions about that.”
Another challenge: the city’s commercial cycling laws are worded vaguely enough to leave third-party apps like Uber and Amazon off the hook for providing safety equipment to their workers.* “It’s a real gray area with these third parties,” says Vincent Maniscalco, DOT’s assistant commissioner of highway inspection and quality assurance. “That’s something we’re looking at to see what kind of vest [cyclists are] gonna be wearing, and who’s gonna provide that vest.”
DOT credits the vests with improving visibility and safety, but many delivery cyclists and advocates say they make it easier for police to single out delivery workers for overzealous enforcement, which they have few ways to protest.
But while legal, language, immigration and employment barriers might keep most delivery cyclists from realizing it, there are allies willing to help them pull the levers of power.
Do Lee, an environmental psychology Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is researching the problems facing New York’s delivery workers. He’s enlisted the help of the Biking Public Project, an advocacy group focused on immigrant and minority cyclists.
Instead of speaking on behalf of delivery cyclists, Lee and his volunteers are listening, connecting to networks like Lu’s Fujianese aid organization, holding focus groups with delivery cyclists and surveying them about the problems they face on and off the job.
“We didn’t start off with an advocacy campaign,” says Dorothy Lê Suchkova of the Biking Public Project. “We started off trying to figure out what they want and what they need.”
“It’s hard to understand what, especially, the Chinese workers go through, without understanding the immigration experience,” Lee says. Many are stuck paying tens of thousands of dollars to “snakeheads” who smuggle them to the United States. “We talked to one guy who, for the first six years he was in the United States, he was working 12- to 16-hour days, and he never had a day off, to pay off that loan.”
“That’s the cost of delivery, is these people’s lives,” Lee says. “This research experience has to be about listening to them.”
It’s also about listening to the data: Lee crunched NYPD enforcement stats and found that delivery cyclists often face a double whammy, with heavy ticketing at both home and work. Even when the number of restaurants is taken into account, Manhattan precincts issue a disproportionate share of commercial cycling violations, Lee found. Meanwhile, minority neighborhoods face the heaviest burden for tickets like riding on the sidewalk or not having lights.
In the future, the Biking Public Project might continue pushing for a more critical look at enforcement against delivery cyclists, or campaign to fix New York’s e-bike laws.
“It’s kind of up in the air, because we’re a project-based group,” says Helen Ho, one of the Biking Public Project’s volunteer organizers. “We’re going to take it one step at a time, do the research first, see what comes out, and see what needs to be done.”
In the meantime, delivery cyclists continue to speed around the city, bringing hot meals for little pay and even less respect.
“Doing this job, you’re constantly reminded that you are not part of the community. You’re reminded that you’re an outsider,” Chen says. “You see the city for what it is.”
Disclosure: The author was employed by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer in 2015 and 2016; during this time he worked on a bill to apply the city’s commercial cycling laws to third-party delivery providers.