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How incentives in the gig economy put workers at risk

From cleaning services to food delivery companies and ridesharing firms, on-demand economy employers use policies that can place workers in unsafe conditions while simultaneously not offering them protections.

At a memorial for Pablo Avendano, who was killed while working for delivery company Caviar, speakers decried an economy that incentivizes workers to work in risky situations without offering them basic protections, like healthcare and worker’s compensation.
At a memorial for Pablo Avendano, who was killed while working for delivery company Caviar, speakers decried an economy that incentivizes workers to work in risky situations without offering them basic protections, like healthcare and worker’s compensation.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Nearing midnight on Jan. 3, not long before a citywide snow emergency went into effect due to an impending blizzard, food delivery service Grubhub sent a message out to its fleet of drivers all over the Philadelphia area.

"Grubhub here!" one message read. "We are expecting high volume in your area tomorrow due to extreme weather. Please feel free to log on and take a block to make some extra money!"

The next morning, as snow piled up, Grubhub sent another message: "Your region is busy right now. Change your status to Taking Offers and make extra cash."

Kenneth Price, who delivers food for Grubhub in the Northeast to make extra cash, didn't bite. It was too dangerous, said the 52-year-old.

Yet these kinds of incentives, standard offerings for Grubhub, show the predicament facing those working in the growing on-demand gig economy. Online marketplaces and app-based companies like cleaning service Handy, domestic worker platform, and ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft all have policies and techniques that encourage workers to take on potentially risky situations — driving in inclement weather, for instance — while simultaneously relinquishing responsibility for their workers.

Through the controversial independent-contractor model, workers give up protections like health insurance, reimbursements for expenses, or worker compensation in exchange for freedom and flexibility. The model, which allows companies to be nimble and save on labor costs, is core to these businesses. And some, like Handy and Uber, are lobbying governments to pass bills that will protect the independent-contractor model.

>> READ MORE: Speaker after speaker blamed Avendano's death on an American economy that pushes them onto the streets for low wages and at dangerous risk

It's a topic that's been pushed to the forefront in Philadelphia, where a bike courier named Pablo Avendano was killed in a May 12 car accident while working for food-delivery service Caviar. "Our dear friend and comrade Pablo was hit by a car and killed working a gig economy job that incentivizes riding a bike in dangerous and inclement weather," Avendano's GoFundMe reads.

Although it's unclear whether Avendano answered this call, Caviar had sent out a "bat signal" to its couriers the rainy night he was hit: "We need more couriers from 8 p.m.-9 p.m. Can you come at that time? You'll get preferred treatment" — which means more jobs. A Caviar spokeswoman said that it shuts down operations when weather conditions are extreme, but the company also advertises bonuses for times when it expects high demand: "Take advantage of the high demand that comes with bad weather and come on out!" read a January 2017 email to Philadelphia couriers featuring several bonuses for working a rainy weekend.

Grubhub drivers in Philadelphia are eligible for guaranteed hourly rates as long as they accept a certain percentage of delivery jobs, so there's pressure to take more jobs regardless of the weather. Spokeswoman Katie Norris said that if safety is the reason for turning down a job, guaranteed hourly rates would not be affected. According to Grubhub drivers, it's not widely apparent how to communicate a safety concern as a reason for rejecting a job.

>> READ MORE: After Caviar courier's death, what about gig workers' rights?

‘I would find myself rushing back to get back in the queue’

Uber does not specifically introduce incentives to get drivers out in bad weather, said Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the company. But its surge pricing, where rates can balloon more than three times the baseline in the event of a situation like a snowstorm, acts as a de facto encouragement, since demand often increases in bad weather.

It's just one of the techniques Uber uses to meet demand and keep drivers on the road, a topic researchers have been studying. "Quests" are another incentive. What may sound like something from a video game is essentially a bonus for providing a certain number of rides during a certain period of time — maybe an extra $60 if a driver completes 60 rides between Monday and Friday. Caviar, too, offers bonuses like these.

Adebukola Y., a 36-year-old Uber driver who asked that her full name not be used, said that if she tries to shut off her app before she's reached the goal of the quest, the app asks her, "Are you sure you want to log off?" It will also remind her how many more rides it would take to fulfill the quest.

Lansana Sylla, 41, a middle school teacher, drove for Uber for about five months in the spring and summer of 2017, and recalled promises of bonus money if a driver picked up 10 passengers within a certain period from high density areas like Center City. It became a race against the clock to drop off one passenger and get back to Center City to pick up another.

"I would find myself rushing back to get back in the queue," he said.

Sylla was able to pick up enough passengers to win the bonus only once, he said.

Even when messaging and incentives don't work — and according to researcher Aaron Shapiro, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the gig economy, they don't seem to be especially effective — Shapiro argues that raising the question is a form of "soft control." In his paper, he points to an Uber report that said drivers adjusted their schedules to work when they knew they could make the most money.

>> READ MORE: From cab to Uber to cab, drivers try to find a way to make a living

‘A delicate dance’ for care workers

While platforms for domestic workers like and Handy stress the safety of its clients, their policies don't always account for worker safety, said researchers Alexandra Mateescu and Julia Ticona. For one, a worker's hireability is largely based on reviews. But that creates an environment where workers resist speaking up about, say, an inappropriate client, for fear of getting a bad review.

"It's a delicate dance between the demand of the platform and how they know they might be retaliated against," Ticona said.

On, workers can alert the platform of any concerns about a client, but those warnings aren't made public to other workers.

A spokeswoman said the company has a "dedicated safety team that responds to complaints and concerns raised by caregivers and families alike" and that it encourages workers to visit its online "Safety Center" so they know about the resources they can use to help them search for and find work in a safe environment.

>> READ MORE: Starbucks arrests raise questions about what it's like for black people in white spaces

Other policies can unintentionally put some workers at risk: Cleaners who find work on Handy told Mateescu and Ticona about a policy where, if a customer was a no-show and unreachable, cleaners couldn't collect their last-minute cancellation fee — the whole fee of the job up to three hours — unless they stayed near the client's residence for 30 minutes, just in case the client turned up. Cleaners, who are often women of color, said they would get suspicious looks and feel uncomfortable hanging around in what are normally white neighborhoods.

According to a Handy spokeswoman, a cleaner who feels unsafe can leave and still get a $15 fee.

The alternative is Craigslist, Mateescu said. But because it has a reputation for being attractive to scam artists, many workers stick with the other platforms.

While gig economy businesses can use any number of techniques to keep people working, ultimately it's the public's desire for convenience that initiates the demand. David King, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies transportation, invoked the public's complicity.

"When we don't go out … we order in," King said. "There, the demand is driven by people who want stuff brought to them."