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Diary of a Seattle gig worker: car trouble, drive-thru battles, and no gray area

caption: Carmen Figueoroa, 47, turned to gig work after a back injury four years ago.
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Carmen Figueoroa, 47, turned to gig work after a back injury four years ago.
Courtesy, Carmen Figueroa

Delivery services like DoorDash, Grubhub, and Instacart boomed during the pandemic. But drivers for such services say they didn’t benefit from that growth, and that their pay actually decreased.

Seattle City Council is drafting legislation to guarantee workers minimum pay and other protections. But critics say the proposal would hurt businesses and consumers who rely on the services.

Drivers say the current pay rate doesn’t take into account the amount of time it takes to get the job done. They face obstacles like late restaurant orders, long drive-thru lines and cars breaking down — factors that are beyond their control.

To highlight some of the daily challenges, we asked Carmen Figueroa, 47, a gig worker with Grubhub and Door Dash, to keep a journal of her workday.

The entries have been edited for clarity and brevity.

March 15: Leftover orders

It’s 7:11 p.m. I just signed on. Earlier today I was working on my car. And it really hurt my back. And I fell asleep on the couch when I was done. I’ve been marked "absent" for my shift and no shifts are available. So if I do get an order, it’s not going to be a good one. I will get whatever is left over after everyone else, who is already scheduled, gets an order, or I will get whatever everyone else who’s already been scheduled has rejected.

It’s 7:26 and I just got my first order. It’s paying out at $18 and some odd cents, which is good considering I don’t have a shift. Drop-off location will be pushing me out of Seattle city limits, which means I will no longer get the minimum per order for Seattle so that’s not that great. Hopefully, I can get this dropped off and get back within Seattle city limits.

Good news, I got back down within Seattle city limits. And I got my first order for Seattle so I’m getting paid the minimum and I’m about to go pick up from Saffron Grill.

I just made the drop off from Saffron Grill. It’s a secure building downtown and he didn’t leave a code or anything so I had to call him and he took a while to come down and get his order. It’s super cold and windy out here today and so I had to just stand there outside of his building in the super-freezing cold wind.

Just got my next order. It’s at McDonald’s downtown. I usually don’t take fast food [orders] because you have to go through the drive-thru and it takes forever. But this particular McDonald’s has a doorbell system, so if you go to the side door and you ring the doorbell, then they’ll bring your order to you and you don’t need to go through the drive-thru. That’s why I’m taking this particular order from this particular McDonald’s, because I don’t need to sit through the drive-thru for 45 minutes.

I got my next order and I’m heading over to lower Queen Anne. Now my car won’t start at all. It’s completely dead. I have no idea what’s wrong with it. I took the order back to the restaurant. I called the customer and let them know another driver will be picking up the order and I called customer service and they cancelled my order and blocked me from taking orders for the rest of the night. So I am done for the night and I have to sit here until I can get a hold of a friend to see if they can give me a jump. I don’t know what’s wrong with my car!

March 16: Drive-thru wars

It’s 9:15, I have a short shift today just 8-10 p.m. I am in the Wendy's drive-thru line at about 20 cars deep so it's probably a good half an hour to 45 minutes before I will get to the window. I usually skip these orders because the drive-thru lines are so long and the lobby is closed … but I'm trying to maintain a rating above 95, so I had to take this order. The reason why that is important is because orders go to the closest, highest-rated available driver. In order to get better orders, I have to maintain a better rating and I try to keep my rating above 95. I had already rejected a McDonald's order earlier, so I am in the Wendy's drive-thru line. I will probably be half an hour, or 45 minutes before I get the order.

It’s 9:19 right now. Another problem with standing in the drive-thru line — there's actually two lines; there's one line on this side of the road and one coming from the opposite direction. Some cars have started forming another line. I have seen fights for people turning in when other people felt it wasn't their turn, because they've been in the line longer. So that's gonna be a problem with those people on the other side, from the opposite direction trying to line up to get to the drive thru.

It is 9:27 and I am now blocking the road because somebody just pulled up from the opposite side and I was the next person to turn into the drive thru from the street. And I'm not going to let him steal my space because I've been here a while, waiting, and he just arrived. He's trying to sneak in, so I am now blocking the road because I'm not letting him steal this spot.

All right, it is 9:29 And we just were able to move forward so I am officially in the drive-thru line; no longer in the road. The other car from the other side is still trying to sneak in and looks like the car behind me is going to do the same thing — blocked the road to get in here and not let the other car from the other side. It's war out here people. It's war.

It is 9:32 and I am two [cars] away from the order box.

So, it is 9:56. Just finished up this Wednesday night. Short shift tonight, just made $28 and some odd cents, just had three orders for the two hours that I worked, one of which was a Wendy's drive-thru. I only took that order to maintain my rating and did not want it, did not want to deliver it. It's not worth my time, or effort, or gas or patience.

I am pretty exhausted. I spent most of the night researching what could be wrong with my car since it broke down last night. I think I figured it out. I'm going to tinker with it tomorrow. Hopefully, I will get it fixed. And hopefully I will be back on the road with my car. Tonight I am using my roommate’s car. So lucky that I had a short shift. I have to replace the gas with the $28 I made tonight.

March 17: Rating takes a hit

No car is available today; my car is still broken. So I take a hit on my rating, as well as make zero dollars.

March 19: West Seattle

West Seattle order. West Seattle orders are not that great. Especially because the West Seattle Bridge is closed — and Grubhub will not acknowledge that the West Seattle Bridge is closed. So, your mileage, it's not going to be correct; your time is not going to be correct. And as you're going to West Seattle, you're going to be constantly getting these messages. And I forget what the exact wording of the message says, but the gist of it is: "Hey, you're going the wrong way," and, "You're late. Please correct that." But as everyone knows, you can't go over the bridge, because it's closed. You have to go all the way around.

I called Grubhub and demanded that they pay me for the mileage and the time, make the mileage and time adjustment. And then I reminded them also that the West Seattle Bridge was closed and to please fix it. They told me the same thing that they tell me every single time — that they will have the information that I gave them, they will escalate it up to the next person and somebody will be in contact with me. I think, the West Seattle Bridge has been closed, what, three years now? Nobody's ever contacted me.

March 21: Car problems

My roommate’s car was not available, so I spent most of the day working on my car. I work for an hour or so, then come back inside to Google what else I could try. Part of the problem — besides not being an auto mechanic and not having access to specialty tools, or being willing to buy them — is that when my back really hurts like it does, my hands start to go numb. It's very painful for me to try to fix my own car.

Doing deliveries, your car takes an incredible amount of wear and tear. I bought this car, brand new, in 2006. So, it's about 16 years old. I've had to learn how to be a mechanic for my car because I just cannot afford to keep taking it in all the time. And I cannot afford to buy a new one.

One time, the car had a coolant leak that I could not find. And the coolant started getting into other systems and messing them up. I was just leaving, about halfway down the block, when a lot of smoke started coming out from under the hood. So I went home, and pop the hood, and my engine was on fire — actual flames.

I put the fire out and discovered that it was pretty much the coolant system that was on fire. I ended up having to replace the majority of the coolant system in the car. So, I replaced the inlet valve and the water pump. And that's where I have the problem now. There is a flywheel in front of the water pump. And you can't take the water pump off without removing the flywheel. And to remove the flywheel, you need a Ford specialty tool. So it's incredibly difficult. It took me a very long time to get the flywheel off, replace the water pump, then get the flywheel back on. When I got the flywheel on, it was slightly misaligned. And I figured, "Well, whatever. It's on." But I know that misalignment is causing other misalignments throughout the engine. And it's causing it to misfire and has a really rough idle.

So, the other week, when it just did not start, it was because of that misalignment. So, I had to struggle with getting it back off and seeing if I could get it back on correctly, after about a week of working on it.

I think I finally solved it. I was reading some of the forums and somebody suggested putting the flywheel in the oven. I did that and it finally went on. It's still slightly misaligned. But not as far as it was, so I'm gonna look at it in the morning.

March 30: "There's no gray area"

I had a friend of a friend who is learning how to become a mechanic. So he came over and looked at my car last night. He said he would not have done anything different than what I've already done. It is taking me a little bit longer than he would have thought. Just because I am inexperienced, and I have to look up solutions and watch YouTube videos to figure out what I'm doing before I actually try to do it. He kind of put me on the right track of what I need to do next. And I am hoping within the next day or two, that I will have my car fixed and running again. And I will not have to keep borrowing people's cars to deliver.

I guess that's one of the things that I don't like about being a gig worker — there's no gray area. You're either delivering and earning or you're not. There is no one you can speak to about your rating or whatnot. Because if you schedule yourself and you're not able to make your shift because your car broke down, and you're not able to borrow a car, then you have to drop your shift or be marked absent and then your rating goes down.

What would I like to see happen that would help me?

I joined the Pay Up campaign, because I just believe in what they are trying to do. They are trying to get gig workers the same rights and dignities that traditional workers have. Just to be able to be paid a fair wage. I do not believe that prices need to increase to be able to do this. I do believe that the gig industry, the executives, the shareholders, they have already made millions of dollars off of my labor, and now it is time to give a little bit back. They could take just a very, very slight pay cut, and be able to pay their workers a living wage that allows their workers to thrive in society, not just get by, not just to be able to survive the day, to be able to work again tomorrow.

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