Ernesta Galvez-Teofilo’s mornings typically start at 6 a.m. She jumps out of bed, rushes to get her three children ready for school, and then hops on her e-bike to ride 10 miles from Corona, Queens, to the East Village. During the 45-minute ride, she transitions from mother to deliverista, preparing to buzz around Lower Manhattan making restaurant deliveries for the next seven hours.
Ernesta came to the United States from the state of Guerrero, Mexico, in 2001, and started doing app-based delivery work five years ago. I met up with her on a cold, rainy Saturday in May to better understand what it’s like to crisscross the city, directed by an app, from restaurants and cafes to apartment buildings and brownstones, delivering food in the Big Apple.
Ernesta had already warned me that my manual bike would not be able to keep up with her. Even though she is only 4′ 7′′, her e-bike can move as fast as 25 miles per hour. I’d decided it would be best to rent an electric Citi Bike, for which I was grateful after discovering that we would be biking miles to deliver breakfast and coffee to waiting New Yorkers.
We meet on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street, in the East Village, and are drinking coffee from a nearby bodega when a deliverista riding up the avenue recognizes Ernesta and begins chatting with her. Ernesta whips out her smartphone to help him with a problem he has with his account. After he rides away, she turns to me and explains that she has learned how to solve many of the problems delivery workers have with their accounts on the applications through her work at Los Deliveristas Unidos (LDU), the app-based delivery workers’ division of the nonprofit Worker’s Justice Project (Proyecto Justicia Laboral).
In March 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown dramatically affected the delivery industry. Many New Yorkers started working from home, and the deliveristas found themselves on the front lines, traveling door-to-door to deliver food and risking exposure to the virus. Ernesta began connecting with other deliveristas who worked in Lower Manhattan, and eventually they organized group chats to coordinate labor demonstrations and to find ways to protect one another from theft and assault while on the job.
This organizing culminated in the passage of a series of bills by the New York City Council this past September, which were supported by a swath of council members and then-Mayor de Blasio. Council Member Carlina Rivera sponsored a bill that grants delivery workers the right to use the bathrooms in restaurants where they pick up food. Another bill makes it mandatory for the delivery-applications companies to ensure that tips get to workers, and includes measures that will put limits on how far workers can be asked to ride. Council Member Brad Lander, now the city comptroller, introduced a bill that, beginning in 2023, will increase workers’ base pay from each order delivered. In only two years, the deliveristas in Lower Manhattan had evolved from a small group—Ernesta and her fellow delivery workers brainstorming on WhatsApp—to partnering with the Worker’s Justice Project to build LDU, providing input on historic legislation for the industry, the first of its kind in any major city in the United States.
Ernesta starts her shift for Relay at exactly 9 a.m. Relay is a smaller delivery-application company that takes overflow orders from the larger apps, such as Uber Eats and DoorDash. On the morning we meet, she is immediately directed to travel to Ess-a-Bagel, on 1st Avenue and 19th Street. Once we arrive there, Relay gives her two orders to pick up, both of bagels and coffee. She has to take special care to place the orders in her delivery bag properly to prepare for the bumpy ride, as spilling any of the coffee will affect her customer rating. With enough low ratings, a deliverista risks being deprioritized in the algorithm and not receiving higher-paying orders, or even having their account deactivated outright.
As we get back on our bikes, Ernesta gestures toward the street and says she is more afraid of accidents when it’s raining. In the parts of the city without protected bike lanes, delivery workers often travel right beside cars, leaving little room for error on the narrow streets in the Village. Just last year, more than a dozen app-based delivery workers were killed in collisions with vehicles. This fear is constantly on every deliverista’s mind.
We travel almost a mile, to 1st Avenue and 10th Street. Ernesta leads the way into an ornate lobby and flashes her phone at the doorman at the front desk, who calls up to the apartment. A woman comes down to hand off a package to a friend who has just walked into the lobby, then turns to Ernesta to take the order. I ask Ernesta if customers usually come down to the lobby to meet her, and she responds excitedly, in Spanish, “It’s very rare!” I understand her excitement when we deliver the second order, only a few blocks away, on 13th Street. We arrive at a brownstone walk-up, and Ernesta begins trudging up the stairs to the fourth floor. (I stay behind, out of the way of a family in the process of moving out; often I am stopped from accompanying Ernesta by a doorman.) When she comes back down, Ernesta looks winded. I ask if this is common, and she can only nod.
Before we even remount our bikes, Relay assigns her another set of orders, this time three separate orders from Zucker’s Bagels and Smoked Fish, on 8th Avenue near 22nd Street. In only a few minutes, we’ve hopscotched across Manhattan, dodging construction work and the potholes that litter the city’s bike lanes to deliver the handful of orders. At the next red light, I ask her if the few extra bucks per order in tips she makes when it’s raining are worth it. She gives a faint shrug and says it depends on how hard it is raining.
The next order we pick up goes to another walk-up, on 29th Street, and this time Ernesta’s bag is full. We slowly make our way up each set of stairs, Ernesta carrying her delivery bag heavy with coffee, donuts, bagels, and sandwiches. Thankfully, the customer meets us on the third floor, saving us another flight. Ernesta looks at me and asks, “Tiring, right?”
After a couple more deliveries around Chelsea, we are ordered to travel another mile to One Hudson Yards, to an apartment building described on the property’s website as offering “unparalleled luxury.” In just an hour, we have traveled from the East Village to Chelsea to Hudson Yards, but even in the bad weather, the tips customers were giving Ernesta varied, with most, even from those living in luxury high-rises, coming in at around two dollars. In this building’s cavernous, ostentatious lobby, carrying a delivery bag heavy with three orders and dripping rain, Ernesta looks particularly small.
The wealth inequality in the city could not be made clearer, as Ernesta makes her way to the elevators. Here is an immigrant mother delivering breakfast to the 17th floor of a luxury apartment building for only a few bucks. When I mention to the doorman that I am shadowing her to write an article about the city’s deliveristas, he sighs, as if he sees the absurdity of the situation as well, and says, “I hope you capture their humanity.”
After working several jobs with more traditional work schedules, Ernesta eventually settled on making deliveries full-time. Like many other deliveristas who are also mothers, she says flexibility in making her own schedule allows her to spend more time with her kids. She has two daughters, 16 and 14, and one son, who is only 6. This work allows her to participate more in her children’s education, which, she says, was difficult and sometimes impossible with the jobs she had before.
Ernesta is leading the charge to create a committee in LDU that represents the many working women in the organization. So far, 41 female deliveristas will be part of that committee. When I ask how many are mothers, she laughs, and exclaims, “All of them!” They all find the same value in this work: being able to balance their commitment to their children with more control over their job schedules.
Over the past four months, Ernesta has begun to play another important role in LDU, beyond being a leader. She has been helping out at the Worker’s Justice Project office two days a week (she gets some pay for her time at the WJP office; she is not paid for the organizing work she does in the streets), assisting deliveristas who are trying to regain access to their accounts after deactivation, directing them to resources after experiencing an accident, and giving them solutions to problems they encounter with payments from the app-delivery companies. So far, Ernesta and another deliverista who works alongside her, José “Manny” Ramírez, have recovered thousands of dollars for delivery workers who were experiencing problems accessing their accounts.
Providing these services has been essential to building LDU’s movement. Hildalyn Colón Hernández, director of policy and strategic partnerships for Los Deliveristas Unidos, tell the Voice, “Ernesta shows the importance of not only organizing her fellow deliveristas but also empowering them to overcome the challenges they confront in both the streets and on the apps.” The connections that Ernesta and Manny help to build are critical to sustaining this movement’s energy, as well as overcoming the loneliness workers often experience. “You can go months without talking to a single other delivery worker,” Manny tells the Voice. With no physical workplace and only a smartphone to take directions from, it’s particularly challenging to organize workers in this industry. This is why Ernesta’s and Manny’s abilities to build Whats-App groups and garner a community on the streets is such an impressive feat, indicative of the innovative, organic ways the deliveristas have been approaching worker organizing.
Over the past couple of weeks, LDU has started reaching out to workers in another way, working alongside SUNY Empire’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies to develop a street-safety course for deliveristas, in hopes of making the streets safer for both workers and pedestrians. The delivery industry exploded during the pandemic, and LDU is stepping in to ensure that workers in this growing industry understand the rules of the road necessary to keep all New Yorkers, including themselves, safe.
As a part of LDU, workers like Ernesta are at the forefront of organizing this burgeoning industry, finding ways to meet workers where they are now and to give them the tools they need to succeed. As Los Deliveristas Unidos transitions into a new era of organizing, the workers themselves are leading the charge, building a deliverista community and sustaining a movement. Ernesta tells the Voice, “By being united, we can make a workforce that helps ourselves more, and an industry that respects us.” ❖
Jackson Todd is studying the effects of technology on labor organizing and social movements. His work has been published in the New York Daily News and People’s World.