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Feeling Essential…And Expendable

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

The Plight Of The Gig Worker In The Shadow Of COVID-19

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

Are ya feelin “Essential”?

How is it up there on that pedestal?

Why, if you listen to the reports of the press you’d swear you got some kind of promotion after being the object of so much adulation. Maybe in today’s verbiage you can be called a hero?

Who coined that word – Essential? How did we get grouped in with “The Essentials”. Are we suddenly elevated to superhero status? Is it just temporary?

To all of you vets who were delivering pizzas from back in the day when there were things called phone booths that we could stop and call the wrong number the customer gave us – this will sound a familiar refrain. To you newbies and side hustlers this may come as a bit of a shock but, spoiler alert – it doesn’t involve a cape, unless it’s a rain poncho.

I just ended my day job (two days a week) of rain-soaked ghetto surfing as a pizza delivery guy. It is one week into the “Coronavirus Crisis” as I like to call it. We're at the point where word has gone out now across many municipalities in the land to “shelter in place”, “practice social distancing”, and adhere to the ever un-American request of our dear leaders to observe instituted curfews.

All except for the “Essentials,” that is.

So I ask again if we are suddenly elevated to superhero status. Yessir, we're up there with the rock stars, the doctors, the police…you know…the other “essentials”.

Question for you gig folks. Are you feeling essential? Have you had to check your essential privilege?

I had my privilege checked tonight while on delivery for Grubhub. I was delivering to a police precinct in my county…a lone building in the suburbs with no parking unless you’re a cop.

Mind you, it wasn’t in the middle of the day and there was a curfew in place, and I was exercising my essential privilege when I rolled up in my vehicle in front of the building and got out to deliver a “no contact” order to a fellow essential (911 dispatcher).


Lo and behold I heard a voice -heavy in authority- challenge my status as I merely followed the “no contact” order instructions from the customer. It came as I was passing two cops on the way to my customer (their co-worker). “You’re parked in a fire lane.”

I indicated that I was mere feet away from the “no contact” zone and as there was not another soul around (curfew and all). I didn’t think that would be a problem…I had, in fact, parked next to his car after all…in the fire lane.

He persisted and complained that I needed to find another place to park. There was none. I remarked to the officer that I had been driving all day (with little appreciation for my elevated position of “Essential” in the form of tip or kindness -most my customers didn’t even want contact with me).

I informed him that as the arbiter of his coworker’s dinner plans I could always leave and he could explain why his co-worker failed to receive her food. This was met with a growl by him and a quick, “Let’s go,” by his superior.

Why am I telling you this? For one thing, if I had been in a different vehicle like an essential marked vehicle (ambulance, fire dept., etc.,) I probably would have gotten a wassup nod, a fist bump…something. My real point is I, we, are essential in label only…and our convenient title, like so many of the entrees we deliver, has an expiration date.

An article caught my attention, talked about gig workers (us essentials) being so necessary and so special that rules we are to live by while we deliver to the “sheltered in space” masses neglect one thing…our own safety.

I wouldn’t really pay that much attention to the article if it didn’t resonate. You see, I’ve been wondering all along what steps we’re supposed to take to protect ourselves.

If you work at a pizza shop you still handle cash but you’re supposed to treat the hot bag like an x-ray blanket. If you go to a customer’s door with Ubereats or Grubhub you’re more protected, but you still pick up from multiple restaurants whose virus policies are as unique and numerous as their menus.

I, for one, don’t give two craps about a company taking care of me…that’s why I do what I do. I don’t ask for the company to send out touching, heartfelt emails that I distrust instinctually as a wild wolf would the human scent.

But if they’re going to put themselves on that pedestal then they must be held accountable. If you’re going to tell me to wash my hands after every delivery then offer me a place or means to do it. But you won’t because you can’t and we both know it.

If you’re going to tell me my health and safety is paramount then provide the sanitizer I am unable to purchase because of empty grocery shelves.

If you are truly trying to offer a safe means of delivery to the public, insure that I have a mask or way of covering my mouth and gloves for my hands. After all, I am touching things that have been touched by others.

But you would rather send emails telling me how much you care than you would make sure that even if I’m doomed for doing my job, at least I won’t spread this thing to others.

There’s an old saw that goes, “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

Yet these companies rain down platitudes every bit as heavy as storm water flooding a broken gutter. How apropos.

The only thing standard about the gig company or pizza place you work for is that NOT ONE offers standard safety tools, as they all indicate, dictate, and mandate in copious politically correct, corporatized “we care” messages that are crafted to sound caring but are sanitized by buzz words and feelz.

And don't think the customer any less culpable either! How many times did you deliver to a sheltered in place customer, too frightened for their own health to go out but perfectly okay with you doing it for them, then stiffed you during the only event like this in most of our lifetimes? Hint: if it was once in the past week it was too many.  

The fact that I even have to address a delivery driver getting stiffed after delivering food under normal circumstances in 2020, much less under a state of emergency condition, says as much about the public state of heart as it does about the companies that are too cowardly to tell the customer to take care of their driver…because they’re too busy writing emails that tell us how much they care.

But hey, we’re all essential…

Until we aren’t.

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