Back in October, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, announced a program to utilize vacant infrastructure (such as newsstands) to provide a place for delivery workers to rest, charge devices, and take a restroom break.
Sounds like a good idea, right?
Not everyone thinks so:
“Following a two-hour discussion over Zoom on Tuesday evening, the Community Board 7 Transportation and Parks & Environment Committees passed a resolution against the proposed hub for deliveristas — the workers who use electric bicycles to make food deliveries — on the traffic island between W. 71st and W. 72nd Streets and Broadway. The resolution will next go to the full community board for a vote, then onto the appropriate government agencies, where it will be taken under advisement.”
At the same time, one Chick-fil-A restaurant on New York's Upper East Side just opened a temporary rest stop exclusively for food delivery workers:
“The space, called ‘the Brake Room,’ will offer a seating lounge at its Upper East Side location at Third Avenue by 86th Street. There, drivers can grab free water, coffee or tea while charging their phones between deliveries. It will also feature a restroom and a parking station for bikes. E-bikes, however, are explicitly prohibited.”
But already there are complaints:
“It’s been so busy, in fact, that some Upper East Side residents have complained of cars being triple and quadruple-parked by the location and of sidewalks being blocked by delivery workers’ bikes. The website Upper East Site said that the location’s popularity and the ensuing congestion were ‘causing headaches with no fix in sight.’”
These developments raise many interesting questions about the gig economy. Issues that seem trivial to most workers but are not all that trivial for gig workers.
I’m sure that most of you, who are reading this newsletter, have restrooms at your workplace, and have the freedom to go whenever you need to, or are entitled to restroom breaks based on your work schedule. The same holds for lunch breaks, or any other break; they are incorporated into our work schedule. Most of us can take a paid day off when we’re sick (not all, but most). Most readers of this newsletter also work for a place managed by a person, so when you feel demotivated, there’s someone there to motivate, instruct, and listen to your problems or keep you engaged.
For most of us, all of this sounds trivial, and we take it for granted.
But this isn’t the case for gig workers. For those who support food delivery, last mile, and ride-sharing- services, the activities I described above are done at their own discretion but without compensation (meaning the time they spend on a break is time and money lost, from work).
But is this motivation enough to sustain people working and being engaged?
And what about restroom breaks?
If you think I am exaggerating, the issue is critical:
“Through a Northern California survey back in December 2021, gig workers told We Drive Progress the inability to access bathrooms while working was one of their most significant issues. ‘We work long hours, often with no breaks, and cover long distances,’ said Ryan G., a gig worker and leader with We Drive Progress. ‘Although we’re essential workers, we don’t have proper access to bathrooms to relieve ourselves with dignity.’”
An article by Vice documented this issue several years ago. And, even the restaurants where Uber and Door Dash drivers pick up food for customers display the following sign:
Restroom breaks, algorithmic management, sick leave... They may sound unrelated, but in my opinion, they’re all very much tied to workers’ well-being. And by well-being I mean taking breaks to tend to the most basic human functions, but also to find meaning in what we do.
In fact, when the mayor of NYC launched the initiative to offer these rest areas, he was trying to tie the two aspects together:
“‘Deliveristas are out there doing the hard work, day in and day out, and are essential to New Yorkers’ way of life and to our city’s economy, and essential workers deserve essential services,’ said Mayor Adams. ‘While most people have a break room to rest while at work, app-based food delivery workers do not. …By investing in existing, underused spaces, like vacant newsstands, this program will ensure our public spaces serve all and ‘Get Stuff Done’ for some of our hardest working New Yorkers.’”
Beyond the political talk, there is an attempt to use terms such as “hardest working new and yorkers” and “essential workers.”
This may ring hollow, but still… I think it’s deeper since there are multiple questions here:
What’s the role of utilizing such language in the announcement?
How can cities offer these “services” in a way that accommodates both the gig workers and the people that live in the vicinity?
What part of this should be the firms’ responsibility, and what should be under the city’s jurisdiction? For example, is there a need for public funding? How should these funds be raised?
What does providing these rest areas mean for the relationship between the workers and the customers who live in the neighborhoods where these services are offered (or may not be offered if this resistance persists)?
Moralizing Gig Work
One of the people concerned with these questions is my colleague Lindsey Cameron. Lindsey studies the gig economy from a different angle than mine. Her research offers insight into how on-demand workers construct meaning, primarily around the language used to describe their role in the community. In one of her most interesting papers, she studied how gig workers (in her case, e-grocery shoppers) reacted to their work's sudden public moralization during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the “public narratives suddenly transformed grocery delivery work, previously un-celebrated into highly moralized ‘heroic’ pursuits.”
“We find that these workers (here, shoppers on the platform organization Instacart), left mainly to themselves, exhibited varying responses to this moralizing and that their perceived relations to the organization, customers, and tasks shaped these responses. Surprisingly, those who facilely adopted the hero label felt morally credentialled, and they were thus likely to minimize their extra-role helping of customers and show low commitment to the organization; in contrast, those who wrestled with the hero narrative sought to earn those moral credentials, and they were more likely to embrace extra-role helping and remain committed to moralized aspects of the work.”
Moralization may backfire!
It’s important to note that moralization (both in the case of the e-grocery shoppers and the New York rest areas) is not created by the delivery platforms but rather by the city (or the press during Covid).
The fact that such moralization may negatively affect the service and commitment to the organization is not a reason not to use such language. It does help some people create meaning and adopt the “hero” or “essential worker” credential. But if this results in further alienation from the people the gig worker needs to interact with, have we really achieved anything?
Gig Work and City Residents: Allies or Adversaries?
The question of the correct language is, of course, besides the point of whether the city or the firms should shoulder the source of funding for these services.
If you read the residents’ initial reaction, no one is against the idea of offering these rest areas… They’re all in favor. They just don’t want them in their backyard:
“‘The idea of putting motorized vehicles in a pedestrian plaza is a recipe for disaster,’ said Sean Khorsandi, Executive Director of Landmark West. ‘Our concern is why would we want to put the safety issue on the public platform. Why are we inviting a nuisance into a public space?... There must be other, more appropriate locations in the city to situate an E-charging and rest and bike repair services hub. But this is not it,’ said Natasha Kazmi of Manhattan Community Board 7.”
And this type of sentiment is, of course, mirrored by the gig workers themselves. In another of her papers, Lindsay documented two different attitudes by gig workers toward their platforms, work, and customers: one of an alliance and one that is more adversarial.
Focusing this time on ride-hailing drivers, she describes the alliance mode as one in which: “...drivers define their work as customer-service oriented driving and, in turn, focus their work activities on developing positive relationships with customers through offering physical and emotional support and designing the environment within the car to foster generative conversations… Drivers in alliance mode tend to see the company and the work itself in a more positive light, viewing the company as helping them earn more, enabling enjoyable experiences, and perhaps serving society at-large.”
In contrast, the adversarial mode describes the work as misaligned with one’s interests, viewing it in a more transactional manner:
“In transactional practices workers define their work as getting a customer safely to their destination, thus focusing their efforts on making each ride as efficient as possible. To do so, drivers create social distance from customers by setting emotional, mental, and physical boundaries to pre-empt unnecessary conversations and requests for additional ride-related services. In transactional practices, workers define doing a good job as getting their customers safely to their destination and earning money…By reinforcing boundaries about what customer behavior is and is not permissible, drivers define their work and emphasize what parts of the work, earning money, have meaning for them.”
That doesn't sound all that bad, of course, but this mode does have negative aspects:
“Drivers blamed ride-hailing for damaging their bodies and cars… Drivers felt that information about surges, bonuses, and pay was misleading and caused them to work grueling, almost inhumane, hours in order to meet the advertised pay. Some drivers believed that ride-hailing favored the customers to such an extent that the entire business model was designed to exploit drivers.”
Thinking through this lens, the attempt to offer rest areas is an effort to shift workers’ mode from an adversarial one to an alliance, if not with respect to the platforms, at the very least toward the residents and the city. But note that the adversarial mode is adopted by the residents themselves. In fact, the public debate about the topic, which is essential, makes this even more accentuated. This discussion can also help explain why the city may be willing to fund these initiatives even if the platforms themselves do not see a reason to do so. Even if they are not customers, residents interact with these drivers continuously on sidewalks, and at street crossings. Making sure both sides view the relationship as an alliance is beneficial in the long run for the well-being of both the workers and the residents.
What Keeps Gig Workers Engaged?
Now, Imagine being a gig worker. You read the debate about restroom breaks. You see the signs that you can’t use the restrooms. You keep working since you need to make money. But what keeps you engaged, if at all?
Lindsey also studies the role of apps in keeping employees motivated. She shows that:
“...individuals turn their work into games they find meaningful, can control, and ‘win.’ In the relational game, workers craft positive customer service encounters, offering gifts and extra services, in the pursuit of high customer ratings, which they track through the app’s rating system. In the efficiency game, workers set boundaries with customers, minimizing any ‘extra’ behavior, in the pursuit of maximizing money per time spent driving and they create their own tracking tools outside the app.”
And again, there is a positive side and a negative one:
“While each game resulted in engagement—as workers were trying to “win”—games were associated with two divergent stances or relationships towards the work, with contrasting potential implications for retention.”
Back again to an alliance or adversarial mode. And maybe we have to be content with this equilibrium.
We need to embrace that gig work, either physical (ride-hailing, delivery) or digital (working on Upwork, Catalant, or other platforms), is here to stay, and we have to think deeper about the well-being of those working in these jobs. It’s not just about our relationship with the platform that “employs” them but rather with the workers themselves.
Maybe creating the rest areas in a place where the community lives (with the right safety measures, of course) will result in less alienation of work. Maybe it will make the work less transactional and more relationship based. This may sound almost Marxist for long-term readers of this newsletter. But we all need to engage in this dialectic process and grapple with the changing environment. Fewer smiles at McDonald’s. More gig workers taking a well-deserved break at the nearby park.
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Interesting insights. I'd like to read more about gig work and meaning, especially in the digital realm where gig sites can lock workers and creators into a cycle of lowballing themselves to compete with others rather than charging what their work is worth.
Really interesting perspective on gig, Gad.