The Most Dangerous Job in New York
About 6 months after launching Breather in NYC, I got a call from the guys who ran the company that cleaned our spaces. They had just gotten acquired, and in a week, they would no longer be able to work with us. I panicked for a second, called my mom, and then came up with an idea.
Uber had just launched UberRUSH, an on-demand bike courier service, a month or two earlier, so I reached out to Uber’s NYC GM, Josh Mohrer, and asked: would your couriers be able to clean Breather spaces? Somehow, Josh agreed, and we worked with the Uber team to get buy-in from the couriers and get our very own “Breather” slider in the Uber app, through which I could see the subset of available couriers who were willing to clean our spaces.
In order to handle multiple simultaneous jobs, I set up a second phone number and a second Uber account, and we were off to the races. Every day for 6 months, I woke up around 6am, when our spaces opened, and started hailing UberRUSH couriers to clean our spaces. I dropped the pin at whichever address needed to be cleaned, found the nearest person, and then texted something like:
“Hey! Ok this is weird, but there’s no delivery. This is a Breather cleaning job. At 7:00am, please go to suite 611, knock on the door to make sure the client is no longer in the space, and if it’s empty, enter 348274# on the keypad. Once you’re in, there is a kit with supplies and instructions under the couch. The next client gets there at 7:30am, so please be thorough but quick. Let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!”
I did this thousands of times. Apparently I was UberRUSH’s #1 customer. Legitimately. You can ask Puja; I would be at dinner, seeing a movie, at the beach, in the middle of a meeting with a landlord, 6am or 11pm - if there was a reservation ending, I was on the Uber app hailing a courier, and then texting a spiel like the one above.
Over time (and this is why I’m telling you this story here), I became friendly with a lot of the couriers. To the point that I could just text “Yo! Code is 402832#, next res is at 8:30. How you doing?”
Through getting to know one guy, Sam, I learned just how crazy and dangerous this job can be. Sam, aka Turtle, was about 25 when he started working with us, gregarious, and the most fearless biker I’ve ever seen. When he wasn’t couriering, Sam raced bikes on the weekend.
Given the nature of the job, Sam and I texted multiple times a day, every day he worked.
And just about once every couple of weeks, Sam would text me something like, “Yoooo I’m not going to be able to complete that job, I got hit. I’m at the hospital, I’ll be alright,” with a couple of gruesome pictures of scrapes, bruises and cuts attached for proof. He broke at least three bones while we knew each other, and as soon as he was even semi-healed, he got back on his bike to do more jobs to pay his rent and fund his passion for bikes.
I tell you all of this because yesterday, Andy Newman of the New York Times wrote a piece, My Frantic Life as a Cab-Dodging, Tip-Chasing Food App Deliveryman, discussing the delivery cyclists powering products like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates. In it, Newman highlights the risks of the job:
And there are risks. Nearly a third of delivery cyclists missed work because of on-the-job injuries last year, one survey found, and at least four delivery riders or bike messengers have been killed in crashes with cars this year…
Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research for the Cornell University Worker Institute in Manhattan, called the food couriers “the most vulnerable workers in digital labor.”
While we ultimately hired many of the couriers we originally worked with through Uber, including Sam, paying them good wages plus benefits, many delivery cyclists can end up making minimum wage or worse, with unpredictable tips and unpredictable delivery flow, all while putting themselves at risk.
But the wage conversation is another discussion for another time. For me, this article is a good reminder to appreciate the people behind our deliveries and the risks they take to make a living.