It was a cold, damp night in Greenwich Village when I went out on my delivery adventure with Cruz. Grabbing four bags filled with other people’s dinner, we began our eight-block sprint.
The sun had not yet set, and we were beginning during prime delivery time—between the hours of 7 to 9 p.m.—which meant we had to be quick, so we could rush right back for more. First stop was Perry Street, where we had to walk up four flights of stairs. A $26 meal; a $3 tip.
Next, we booked over to Bank Street—another two flights. Easy. But when the woman opened the door, I was attacked by three very excited Cocker Spaniels. She was dressed in what I assumed were her I’ve-had-a-long-day-at-work-so-now-I’m-relaxing-in-my-old-worn-gray-sweats sweats, her cherubic yet fortyish face popped out from floral-prints. She ignored this attack upon my legs. Her disheveled blond curls swept across her large, intent eyes as her plump, outstretched hand reached for the bag. Hey, she did give us a $4.50 tip.
Onto West 11th Street where (thankfully) there was an elevator. No smile, no thank you, just $3.50. Quickly over to West 4th. Another walk-up and three bucks. Then we sprinted back to the restaurant where three more orders were waiting. Back out again. It’s not that I’m out of shape. I go to the gym, so I’m not usually gasping for breath. But this pace was exhausting, and we’d only just begun. I tried not to ponder the minutes and hours ahead—too daunting. It was an endless (and tiring) cycle.
When my “shift” was finally over, I walked back to my apartment and only then was I able to feel grateful that delivery was not my vocation. All I had to do was write about it. Plus, this was just a miserable day in April; I can’t imagine how horrible it would be in February.
It seemed like the best thing to do if I wanted to begin to understand what these men (it was always men) experienced; the reliable troop of guys who trump up to my door with my dinner. What were they thinking when I ordered neighborhood Chinese, pizza and gourmet sandwiches with spreads many of them couldn’t pronounce?
I had offered up my services to various restaurants around the city—no takers. Something about rules and regulations. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I loitered around several popular Upper West Side restaurants and ambushed parcel-carrying men as they came out. I felt like a would-be Mafia infiltrator when I asked if I could accompany them on their runs. Some stopped to talk to me, but none allowed me to tag along. I suspected they feared losing their jobs—seemed perfectly reasonable—and I certainly didn’t hold it against them.
Finally, one of the restaurants came through. The general manger of a popular Southwestern on Hudson Street—a very nice and trusting man with nothing to hide—agreed to let me go along on a few runs. So I finally experienced a little of that delivery guy dead heat firsthand.
Here’s a Tip
New York is the ultimate city of convenience (and a perfect place to live if you happen to be agoraphobic). Just about anything you desire can be delivered directly to your door: groceries, laundry, flowers, entertainment (from strippers to magicians), wonderfully prepared meals, drugs and, yes, even sex. Everything’s just a phone call away. Unable to run out to your favorite neighborhood restaurant? The legions of NYC restaurant delivery workers will carry just about anything to your doorstep.
These delivery guys—most of whom hail from Mexico—have become the urban equivalent of the migrant farm worker: Instead of working acres of farmland, they work the blocks of our concrete streets. Instead of food to be picked, it’s food to be delivered. Plastic bags filled with containers of prepared food have replaced the bushels and baskets of produce.
I began my research by visiting various neighborhoods and boldly approaching the staff. But getting a restaurant manager to talk to me, or allow me access to their stable of food transport technicians, proved to be more challenging than I initially anticipated. Several became belligerent and went as far as to ask me to leave. No wonder, since countless city restaurants practice blatant labor violations. They wanted me out—and not asking questions.
Not to get all César Chávez here, but there are a few facts of which everyone should be aware. Under New York State law, restaurants are required to pay tipped workers a minimum wage of $4.60 an hour. Yet, many are paid as little as $1.60 an hour. The majority of delivery workers in New York—most of whom are immigrants and many of them undocumented—make less than $2 an hour, according to Josephine Lee, coordinator of Justice Will Be Served, a campaign to unite restaurant workers.
“Restaurants use this under-class labor to drive down the conditions for everyone else,” explained Lee. “This is not unusual. This is happening in restaurants all over town.”
Saru Jayaraman, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY), a New York restaurant workers advocacy group, agreed, “There is a culture of non-compliance with the law, and there are no consequences. For years they’ve gotten away with it.”
Sure, you probably thought about it, but that couldn’t be the case with your nice, clean bourgie establishment. Just those corner Chinese dives that you’d never step foot in anyway, right? Wrong. “There also is a misconception that it’s just the ethnic restaurants,” Jayaraman added. “But it’s the higher-end restaurants that are the worst.” So there, you’re not off the hook yet.
There are currently several class-action lawsuits pending on behalf of restaurant workers, which not only concern money issues (such as unpaid wages and tip siphoning) but also health and safety violations. Of course, it’s essential to point out that some restaurants do comply with the law by providing for their workers and by paying minimum wage or above, but the fact of the matter is that most of us are loving our convenience and, by doing so, implicitly supporting the exploitation of thousands.
Lost in Translation
After several days of canvassing restaurants and not having much success, doors (and mouths) suddenly began to open. I was then faced with another problem: I instantly found myself with a language barrier keeping me from getting any answers. Many of these guys have only a cursory knowledge of English, and I didn’t think my high school Spanish was up to the task. Thankfully, my bad Spanish, coupled with their broken English proved to be … interesting, yet sufficient. I often felt like I was part of a bad “SNL” skit.
“So, how … many … deliveries … do … you … make … a … night?” That’s me, speaking as slowly and deliberately as I could muster.
“No. How many?”
“Sometimes I ride bike, sometimesI walk.”
“No … no … cuanto, cuanto?
“No, cuantos. Oy! Umm … cuantos hace deliveries una notte?” Occasionally I slipped into Italian (which I do speak). It wasn’t always this difficult, but anyone listening in would have been completely perplexed. But, somehow, it always worked out.
“Oh, oh, about 15 or 20 a night …
Yay, exito! Success!
At last, I had a small window into how the guys busting their asses saw us and, best of all, our “gratuities.” Well, it turns out that we’re less generous at work than we are at home. Reportedly, while the average tip in the evening is from $3-$4, the average amount for a lunch delivery runs around $1-$2. Yep, that’s right, even on larger meals—or group orders that swell to $40 or more—we still only give two stinking bucks. Yeah, a few dig through pockets and wallets for change and give odd amounts, like $1.35 or $1.62, the delivery guys admitted. But it never reached the larger amounts of dinner.
At night, we tend to round off to a dollar amount. Here’s something to think about the next time you charge a meal: Although it’s illegal, a number of restaurants engage in the practice of deducting the credit card processing fee from a delivery guy’s tip (generally 2 to 3 percent of the sale). So, try to make those tips in cash.
Many of the guys told me that they’re paid just $20 for a six- to seven-hour shift (below the legally mandated minimum wage requirement), and average about $45 a night in tips. (Think about that the next time you fork over your change to those college kids at Starbucks who rack it up for just doing their cashier job—as well as getting paid above the minimum wage.) When I asked if they receive better tips during bad weather, Luis, who works in an Italian restaurant in the Village frowned and said, “Some people do tip more for bad weather, but not everyone. I don’t think they understand it’s hard to deliver food in the cold and when it rains. And even worse on bicycle. Nobody likes to go out in the rain or cold. Especially for many hours and carrying bags.”
I asked him what he thinks about while racing around all evening in the cold. “My home.” Another guy responded, “What else can you think about? It’s cold! I think about how cold my feet are.”
They all agree that men are generally more generous than women, and that people who live in elevator buildings tend to tip more than those who live in walk-ups. One fellow said that he walked 10 blocks in the snow, then up three flights of stairs, and will often only get a dollar. Interestingly, they all claimed that they frequently get better tips from those who live within just a few blocks of the restaurant, over those who are further away.
After scrambling for a couple hours with Cruz, I walked home and closed my door, completely exhausted. Then I picked up the phone and ordered my dinner: chicken piccata from my favorite Italian place just five blocks away. When the guy came to the door, he was short, thin and, of course, Mexican. I wanted to let him know that I was now a part of his fraternity, part of the delivery brotherhood. Instead, I just gave the guy a five-dollar bill. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was $2 more than I typically gave. And we both deserved it.