Grubhub has announced a new pilot partnership with the shared e-bike company JOCO. The pilot will run for three months in New York City beginning in June and will distribute free e-bike credits to at least 500 Grubhub cyclists. Cyclists can also use JOCO’s network of more than 55 rest hubs, which offer bike storage, rider gear, and fresh batteries. Grubhub says the new partnership is in response to the recent fatalities and injuries related to lithium-ion battery explosions from poor-quality e-bikes. The Grubhub Community Fund will also give $100,000 to the New York City Fire Department’s FDNY Foundation for education on safe practices with these batteries.
Grubhub’s announcement comes at the heels of Uber’s partnership with the e-bike company Zoomo, which allows New York City delivery cyclists to trade in bikes with uncertified batteries for safer Zoomo models with higher-quality batteries, rent-to-own pricing options, and priority access to maintenance services.
With the rise of app delivery platforms and their market share—especially during the pandemic—the rights and safety of delivery cyclists have been under heated debate. As delivery companies slowly roll out plans to lend company equipment, organizers and gig workers continue speaking out about safety conditions, delivery vehicle conditions, and low payouts.
“I feel bad because [Grubhub] is doing something good, but it’s hard to know that now because we’ve been burned so many times,” said Lori Simmons, a Chicago-based organizer at The People’s Lobby, a membership-based community advocacy organization. “The people working on these apps know this is the only job where you’re guaranteed to take a pay cut every year.”
Shared company equipment isn’t a novel concept; rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft have already successfully launched programs allowing drivers to rent vehicles for company use. New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has responded to calls for improved safety conditions for cyclists. While Workers Justice Project did not specifically ask for company-shared bikes, they have advocated for a safety surcharge fee on delivery orders, which would go into a fund to help workers purchase safer, more expensive certified batteries.
Rebuilding trust with delivery workers
The share of gig workers increased 15% in the last decade. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, gig workers made up about 35% of the workforce as the demand for at-home delivery services increased. Remote work policies and consumer desire for convenience continue to support this growth rate.
As independent contractors, gig workers like rideshare drivers, on-demand handypersons, and delivery drivers are at particular risk in the labor markets. Although President Joe Biden announced a proposal to reclassify independent contractors as employees, they do not presently have the right to protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act nor the right to bargain and have cases heard by the National Labor Relations Board.
Worker performance is often influenced by factors that can be beyond their control, such as whether the restaurant is able to prepare the food quickly enough, traffic levels, weather, and more. Delivery platforms like Grubhub assess “top tier” worker performance based on a few different metrics related to speed, accuracy, and consistency.
Joseph, who is using a pseudonym to avoid retaliation from his employers, has worked for Grubhub, Caviar, Uber Eats, DoorDash, and other delivery platforms in Chicago since April 2016. He gave a common example of restaurant timing resulting in a decreased “completion” rate on the app. Platforms ding workers for lower acceptance and completion rates, offering fewer assignments and correspondingly decreased take-home pay.
Joseph noted potential drawbacks for himself as a manual cyclist.
“It’s a great idea, but I would have a reservation or two about it,” Joseph said, adding that he’s worried that with increasing company endorsement of e-bikes, he could be docked for his slower delivery speed on an analog bike. “I personally wouldn’t use the program. I have handlebars, seats custom made for myself, and I like the freedom of having my own bike for running errands [and] seeing friends.”
Simmons noted that cyclist-specific concerns include ride assignments, with the changing algorithm often assigning rides that are really far and don’t make sense for a bicycle.
In addition to the free e-bike credits, Joseph wants to see companies offer the repair stipends that workers’ rights groups have been lobbying for for years.
“I just replaced my bike last month after two years. Two years of worn brake pads, flat tires, and all kinds of gear and brake adjustments,” he said. “All major and minor fixes that I’ve had to get done mostly because of delivery work.”
Gig workers are leaving the industry in high numbers, citing struggles with lower payouts, mental health struggles, and reduced employment certainty. Given the resistance of app delivery companies to support improvement of workers’ rights, Joseph remains skeptical.
“My first reaction is curiosity … they’re bound to have strings attached. They’re not going to invest in delivery people and not want something in return,” he said.
Some delivery workers have raised concerns about the program implementation and whether workers could be held liable for the equipment if it were to be stolen.
To defend against a string of nighttime bike thefts, some New York City workers have created a “night watch” patrol for one another.
Facebook and WhatsApp groups help cyclists tap into the patrol system. With 80% of bike delivery workers estimated as undocumented, many of these workers fear going to the police in response to theft, assault, or crash accidents. The JOCO and Grubhub partnership could help address this issue.
“The bikes and batteries are property of JOCO. JOCO is unique because bikers do not have to take their e-bike or their battery home,” said Grubhub Vice President of Government Relations Amy Healy in an email to Prism. “All equipment is stored at one of JOCO’s 55+ hubs, which are staffed by JOCO employees to help with safe exchange and charging of batteries in a certified fireproof charging cabinet. JOCO bikes also have anti-theft capabilities installed to make deliveries easier.”
But while rental cars and e-bikes could solve some transportation problems for delivery workers, gig worker advocates say that when companies like Uber outsource their rental management to third parties, quality can be a mixed bag.
“When [companies] provide cars with rideshares, often the cars aren’t in great shape … these app companies are always cutting corners,” Simmons said.