Last night, New York City flooded. A tidal wave of sewage inundated the subway; manhole covers rattled like it was the apocalypse; the 60 minutes between 8:50 p.m. and 9:50 p.m. was, by a wide margin, the wettest hour ever in Central Park; water submerged cars in all five boroughs; and at least eight New Yorkers tragically lost their lives in the storm.
And who was out in this history-setting catastrophic storm? The workers tasked with delivering food to people who were safe and dry inside their homes.
A little after ten last night, a video appeared on Twitter purporting to show a food-delivery worker wading through waist-high floodwater, walking his bike while holding a white plastic delivery bag. Some questioned whether this person was actually a delivery worker — all signs indicate he was — other examples of food-deliverers out in the storm were simple to find, even after 10 p.m., while New York City was experiencing the worst of the rainfall.
Reactions to the above tweet ranged from “Tip generously tonight!” to “DON’T ORDER FOOD TONIGHT!” to “Whoever ordered food needs to be in The Hague.” And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered a measured, “Please do not be the person who orders delivery during a flash flood that the NWS has deemed a dangerous and life-threatening situation … If it’s too dangerous for you, it’s too dangerous for them.”
The video and photos are jarring, and the past 19 months have laid bare how uniquely vulnerable gig workers in general, and food-delivery workers specifically, are. Even as people worked through the surges of citywide COVID infection, many were not fairly compensated. As the New York Times reported this summer, “Though the minimum wage in New York City is $15 an hour, many residents who work for app-based services like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Lyft earn less than half that and cannot pay rent and other expenses, according to surveys of gig workers in the city.” While there have been efforts to organize, and to improve working conditions, last night is the clearest illustration yet that nothing has really improved at all.
It is, of course, not enough to say “tip generously,” or “don’t order food at a time when the people delivering it will have to risk their actual lives to get to your home,” because as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic — and these past ten days’ two major storms — putting workers’ lives at risk is not enough to deter everyone.
Instead, food delivery simply should not be an option; workers should be granted enough of a safety net so that they can stay safe without missing a night of wages. And we should be able to say that if the entire subway system is shut down, if there is a ban on all travel, and if the city’s streets are quite literally underwater, we aren’t risking workers’ safety unnecessarily so that you can get a sandwich or whatever delivered for dinner.