Student food couriers struggle to make ends meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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By Anna Wdowczyk

Delivering food amid the COVID-19 pandemic comes with many safety and financial concerns, according to student couriers.

Ryerson graduate and UberEats courier Anjali Rawat said she believes services should provide workers with insurance and paid sick leave, especially considering the danger of high traffic for Toronto cyclists.

She also said food delivery services should hike their prices so workers don’t have to rely on tips. “The only reason I make enough money is because of the generosity of the people who use [UberEats],” she said. “If people didn’t pay me tips, I would be making less than minimum wage.”

For first-year business management student Lorien Wong, some of the job’s greatest struggles include dealing with restaurants that don’t prepare food on time and not getting compensation for items stolen on the job.

Wong previously worked at Foodora after dropping out of an engineering program at Ryerson. When his bike was stolen last February, he said the company ended his contract without providing any monetary support.

“My favourite part about the job is definitely when I deliver the food to the customer and they say ‘thank you,’” added Wong. But now, many customers don’t want any form of contact with their couriers due to social distancing rules.

Contactless deliveries are easier to perform—couriers who bring food to apartments can simply leave orders by the lobby instead of going through security to enter the building, said Wong.

Although there were some perks for food delivery, Wong plans to avoid that work in the future. “I learned my lesson,” he said, after being exposed to poor work conditions on the job.

“Students employed in precarious or gig work, including bicycle delivery work, may face on-the-job risks and fewer protections”

Anne Harris, an associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Occupational and Public Health, is leading a pilot study exploring health and safety for bicycle couriers.

She said she’s looking into some of the main concerns for those making bicycle deliveries, which could include noise, extreme temperatures, injuries and the risk of exposure to COVID-19 on the job.

Harris said her team is also looking into threats about safety from “physical violence or harassment” and customer compliance with physical distancing rules.

“In our pilot data, the respondents said that customers were mostly respecting physical distancing so we were glad to see that,” said Harris, but she added students may be more vulnerable to these issues.

“Students employed in precarious or gig work, including bicycle delivery work, may face on-the-job risks and fewer protections from these risks,” said Harris. “We need to study this more to ensure we can protect all workers, including students.”

Harris said student couriers should “make sure that they’re taking care of their own health and safety, and taking a look at public health guidelines to ensure they have the right protection. Additionally, they must stay home if they’re not feeling well.

However, these issues take less of a toll on those who deliver food as a side hustle, according to Ryerson business management student and UberEats worker George Sukhinin.

Sukhinin said he chose this part-time job over others because he wanted to get more exercise by cycling. He added that it’s only possible to make good money during peak hours around lunch and dinner times. These busy periods are competitive for food couriers.

“[Delivering food] should not be a full-time job because it’s impossible to make enough money…the hours are very limited,” he said, adding that most of the time, food couriers are waiting or cruising around town until an order is placed.

“Food delivering should be a job that sustains itself and there is a high demand for this service”

Brice Sopher, a gig work advocate and UberEats courier, said running food deliveries doesn’t guarantee a living wage. He said it should be possible for student food couriers to make enough money for financing school, supplies and rent. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for many.

Sopher said he finds himself going to work throughout the pandemic, even when he’s worried about getting sick, just so he can afford rent.

While advocating for the rights of fellow gig workers, he said has heard from international student couriers who fear deportation because their jobs don’t strengthen their immigration statuses. This is unfair because they should be able to focus on their studies, according to Sopher.

Patty Coates, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said washroom accessibility is another concerning issue couriers face when they don’t deliver food near their homes. Finding new places to refresh, wash their hands and use the bathroom at work is a new challenge for gig workers during lockdown.

“It’s hard; [food couriers] don’t have that home base,” she stated.

Coates said many Ontario couriers also face the burden of financing most of their own personal protective equipment (PPE) to stay safe while on the job.

Due to restaurant closures and lockdowns, many food couriers said an average shift is busier than usual, meaning couriers face higher risks for contracting COVID-19.

Sopher is advocating for washroom access, adequate PPE and contact-free deliveries along with Gig Workers United. The community union is also demanding the right to refuse unsafe work, paid sick leaves, guaranteed returns to the job and hazard pay.

Gig Workers United will continue holding general meetings where couriers can express their concerns, aiming to draw the attention of large delivery services.

“[Food delivering] should be a job that sustains itself and there is a high demand for this service…People are never going to stop ordering stuff to their homes. And if that’s the case, then people should be paid properly,” said Sopher.

“Hopefully we can get to a point where [couriers] don’t rely on tips and that the base pays enough to sustain people.”

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