I’m a delivery worker in New York. Winter is the toughest time of year

Snow doesn’t fall in Guatemala. When I was a little kid I’d see snow in movies, but never did I think I’d see it in real life.

I’ve been a delivery worker in New York City since I moved here nearly 18 years ago. I was at home when I saw snow for the first time. It looked so different from how I’d imagined. I woke up early with some friends to shovel snow from people’s driveways and I earned $200.

The next day I had to go back to work, at a pizzeria on the Upper East Side. The snow wasn’t nice any more: it was slimy and slippery, and my sneakers were all wet. My co-worker looked at me and said: “You don’t have boots. Here, use these plastic bags on your feet.” Some other customers sitting at a table noticed my thin jacket, and they gave me a heavy one – I ended up using it for another three years.

Winter is the toughest time of the year for delivery workers. A lot of people don’t understand: the wind hits you much harder when you’re riding a bike. You feel like a block of ice. I try to keep my feet warm by wearing two or three layers of socks, but I have to wear fingerless gloves so that I can use my smartphone to receive orders from DoorDash, Uber, and Grubhub.

I don’t think the apps really care about our safety. Whenever there’s a storm outside, they send us notifications that say it’s a really good time to go out to make money. They only care about money and to make it, they need workers in the street.

I’m really careful when I work. But in December 2020 I had a really bad accident. I was riding down Eighth Avenue near 23rd Street, and I didn’t see the black ice. I slid and got a big gash on my knee. I was carrying food for DoorDash, so I called them and told them I was hurt, and might not be able to keep working. The first question they asked me was: “How’s the food?” I felt they were more worried about the food than the person carrying it. My wound ended up getting infected, and I was out of work for two weeks.

The cold doesn’t just affect our bodies. The salt they use on roads can get mixed with water and damage the electronics on our e-bikes, which can cost hundreds of dollars to repair. And you know how when it’s really cold, sometimes your phone goes crazy? It’s because the current in the battery drops, and it’s like that with our e-bikes too. Usually the batteries last us four hours, but in the winter we might only get one and a half.

That’s why delivery always takes longer in a storm. But some customers lose their minds. Last winter, I was carrying four different orders from a single restaurant. The last customer on my route started texting me and asking: “Where’s my food?” I replied. “Ma’am, I’m on my way.” She said: “I can see that you picked up my food an hour ago.” So I tried to explain: “The apps tell me the order of how to drop off the deliveries – I’m on the third one now, and you’re going to be the fourth.” The customer went crazy – “This is not OK, and I’m going to report you,” she said.

A lot of people don’t really think of us as human. I talked to a friend who is also a delivery driver yesterday – he was picking up food from a restaurant in Chinatown. The lady at the place told him: “The food isn’t going to be ready for another 20 minutes, you gotta wait outside.” He said: “Ma’am, I’m just trying to get a little warmth.” She said: “No, you’re not allowed to stay here. Go out on the street.”

People don’t understand that in the winter, sometimes we don’t have a good place to rest. Sometimes it gets a little quiet, which means we can be out on the street for hours. When you’re on the street, you’re freezing, but some buildings’ lobbies are steaming hot, like saunas. You start sweating, which chills you when you go back outside.

That’s why we get sick easily. I get sick nearly every winter, and I’m sick right now at home with a really bad cough and cold. My friends told me to go to the hospital, but I said no. I don’t like hospitals. During the pandemic, a lot of workers got sick and went to the hospital, then never came back home.

My wife gets scared when I work in bad weather; she calls me a lot and asks what time I’ll be home. A few years ago, the snowstorm was so bad that I got stuck in Manhattan. The pizzeria had to close at 10pm, and the subways nearby got shut down. So me and a friend had to walk across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn to find a train – I finally got home at 3 or 4am. My wife was still up waiting for me she was so worried.

Gustavo Ajche
Gustavo Ajche. ‘I’m sick right now at home with a really bad cough and cold.’ Photograph: Sammy Escalante/courtesy of Sammy Escalante

What we need is more places in the city to rest. That’s why the group I founded, Los Deliveristas Unidos, that is pushing for New York to build delivery worker hubs: shelters where we can take a break and charge our equipment. We’re hoping to get the first one next summer. We’re also asking the city for a living wage to cover our equipment costs and the risk of injury. Right now, we only survive because of customers’ tips.

Some workers have no other choice but to do this job. I have some options because I also work in construction. But construction gets slow in the winter, and delivery gets busy. And the thing that keeps pushing me outside is that I’ve got my daughter and son in college in Guatemala. So I have to keep sending money home. If they study hard, they can get good jobs where they can work from home, not out in the bad weather like me.

So this winter, I ask: please be patient. Be nice to the delivery workers. We deal with crazy things on the street, and ending a drop off with an angry customer makes our day even worse. Hearing “thank you” means a lot to us. And please remember: if you order food, tip good.

As told to Wilfred Chan


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