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Should we “Deliver the Order, no matter the tip?” An Open Response to the American Genius

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The American Genius, an online magazine that calls itself “the pulse of today's entrepreneur” recently published an editorial from one of its staff writers entitled “Food delivery drivers, here's a tip: Deliver the order, no matter the tip.”

I'd like to respectfully offer my response. I have to admit, it's real easy to let the snark monster loose. I think there's some room for some constructive dialogue here, so I'll keep the snark on a leash.

Here's my open letter response to Joleen Jernigan, the author of the piece, and to the American Genius.

Vintage envelope with scripted writing on a piece of stationary depicting the concept of an open letter.

Dear Joleen,

I find it ironic that in a publication that you would ask me to not be an entrepreneur in a site that brands itself “the pulse of today's entrepreneur.”

It's probably no surprise that I disagree with the premise of your article. I wanted to write this because I think you're open to a reasonable response. Something you wrote gives me that impression.

Even though tips are a large part of their income, it’s not clear to customers exactly how drivers get paid. That may be part of the problem.

Joleen Jernigan in The American Genius: Food delivery drivers, here's a tip: Deliver the order, no mater the tip.

I believe you are correct. I appreciate that you address the topic of what we are paid and even expand on it further in your article. However, my decision to accept and reject deliveries goes far beyond tipping and pay rates.

In fact, respectfully, I think you may have some misconceptions yourself. You concluded by saying the following:

I hate to say it, because I believe in tipping big, but it’s in the job description. In my experience, most people hold up their end of the bargain and tip. Others may not. If you don’t like it, then maybe driving for a delivery service isn’t for you

I think this is the heart of the misconception. There is no job description. For one, we are not employees, and two, there's nothing in our agreement to this fact. In fact it's quite the opposite.

Let's look at it from your world.

The bio says you are a staff writer. I don't know if that means you are on salary or you do this as a freelancer.

Woman at her desk with hand on laptop who may or may not be a freelance writer.

But here's an idea: I'd like to hire you as a freelance writer for my blog. I'll gladly pay you a penny per word.

A nice 1,000 word article that maybe takes an hour or two to crank out could net you a cool $10. Pretty attractive offer, right?

Would it be fair, or reasonable, to say to you “If you don't like it, then maybe writing isn't for you?”

Now you might actually decide it's worth doing. Maybe you figure the exposure you get from writing on my blog would position you for more and better freelance opportunities.

But see, as a freelancer, that's a business decision you get to make. (Okay, let's be real here: I don't have that much influence. It probably wouldn't be a great business decision on your end to take that offer.)

If I put you on payroll instead, I could direct your work a little more. But then I have to provide some guarantees and protections.

As a writer you live in a world of freelancing vs employment. Some prefer freelance work, some would rather be staff employees. In that light, I'm hoping you understand a bit further the nuance of us being independent contractors.

The issue here isn't tipping. It's about operating my business profitably.

When you mention a job description, I wonder if you knew we were contractors.

Doordash, Uber Eats, Grubhub and other delivery platforms contract with us to perform the service as a business. This is why I say there's no job description.

Here are some things to understand about being an independent contractor:

What we receive for deliveries is not the same thing as income.

You seem to have a pretty good grasp of the earnings range for drivers. You're probably not far off saying we can average $9 to $25 per hour.

What you may not understand is, that's our gross revenue, not our pay.

We have no wages. We use our own vehicle. There is no reimbursement. The cost of using our car comes out of our own pocket.

Illustration of pencil, ruler, and eraser on notebook that says Cost vs Benefit, over graph paper illustrating a business expense vs income concept.
We contract with delivery platforms as independent contractors, not as employees. This means we operate as a business and have to make business decisions about delivery offers that are presented to us.

It costs a lot more than just gas to use our cars to deliver your food. Wear and tear is a very real cost of doing business as a delivery driver. It's just most of that cost is paid later. When we replace the tires or timing belt. When we can't sell or trade it for as much due to the extreme miles. It's like a credit card on wheels.

I track everything when I deliver and I do a lot of experiments. I analyze stuff to the extreme sometimes. Let's do some math here.

I've figured that my car costs about 30 cents to drive a mile. A lot less than the IRS's 56¢, however it's a lot more than just gas. The times I've ‘taken everything' I average just over 1.3 miles per dollar earned. So for every $10 earned, I have about $4 in costs. That's a 60% margin.

That $9 to $25 now becomes $5.40 to $15.00 per hour. And if I'm not allowed to pick offers that make sense, I'm more likely to be on the low end.

We have no guarantees or protections.

There's no such thing as minimum wage. Overtime doesn't exist. Worker's compensation? Not a thing. Unemployment? With the temporary exception of PUA, it doesn't exist.

We get no hazard pay for bad weather or delivering in a pandemic. Delivery companies boost or reduce fees based on what it takes to get enough drivers out there to get the orders delivered.

No safety net for independent contractors concept with 3D figuring holding briefcase and umbrella walking a tightrope.
There is no safety net for independent contractors

We are completely on our own. There is no safety net

If we take that $3, 45-minute delivery (a lot of those exist) we could get a better delivery right after. Or we could end up waiting 20 minutes til our next offer.

There is no guarantee.

Accepting everything we're offered is NOT in our ‘job description.'

How can there be a job description if there is no job?

In fact, our contract says exactly the opposite to what you stated.

they are free to accept or reject the opportunities transmitted through the DOORDASH platform by consumers, and can make such decisions to maximize their opportunity to profit

Recitals section (ii) in Doordash's Independent Contractor Agreement.

We didn't even agree to a social contract regarding tipping. Your contract is actually with the company you place the order with. You go to their website, you order the food. You have the right to expect it to be delivered.

The responsibility of fulfilling that contract is that of the company. That means it falls on their employees.

However, they chose not to hire us as employees. They chose a system where they offer out deliveries to independent contractors who can accept or reject the offer.

It's really a freelance system. I can listen to offers from Uber Eats, Doordash, Grubhub, and any others all at the same time. I'm under no obligation to anyone until the moment I accept an offer.

If I chose to freelance as a writer, I have an obligation to provide the best article I can within the terms of the agreement. It is not my job to make editorial decisions or to choose the direction of the publication. That's the decision of the publication.

That's how it is with delivery contractors. Our agreement is delivery by delivery. It begins the moment we accept an offer. Our job is to do exactly what we agreed to do, which is complete that delivery satisfactorily.

If Doordash or Uber Eats or Grubhub decided not to hire me as an employee, how is it my social contract to do a job outside my agreement?

The independent contractor vs employee game.

You've probably watched all the AB5 and Prop 22 drama in California. I know many freelancers are opposed to the PRO Act. Freelancing and gig economy work have similarities with that tension between employee or contractor.

I mentioned how we're on our own as contractors. It's an arrangement that is ripe for exploitation by these companies, as they contract as drivers, provide no protections, but try to manipulate us into acting and thinking like employees.

I just talked about the social contract above. Were you aware that when you place an order, you're placing it with a company that claims they're not a delivery company? They'll tell you they're just a tech company that connects you to a delivery person.

I find it kind of funny. You place the order through them. You pay them. They send us the offer. THEY pay us. But they're not a delivery company.

It's all rhetoric. It's them wording things in a way that makes it look like they don't control the relationship. They're constantly walking this line to protect the ability to use contractors. Why else would they spend a fifth of a billion dollars in just one state to campaign for the ability to keep using contractors?

Preventing exploitation as an independent contractor.

So does this mean we're being exploited?

If we did what you want us to do, we put ourselves in a position of exploitation.

That said, I don't feel exploited. I walked into this relationship with the delivery platforms eyes wide open. I knew there were no guarantees.

However, I also took this approach: If you're going to sign me up as a business, then I'm going to treat it like a business. That means that you, Grubhub, are my customer. Uber Eats and Doordash, I have a business to business relationship with you.

A restaurant opened in my neighborhood. Awesome food and incredibly cheap. I kept telling them they need to raise their prices. They laughed at me. I'm mad at them for not listening because now they're out of business and one of my favorite places to eat is gone.

This is what I'm getting at: The only way to avoid being exploited in this independent contractor relationship is to take these companies at their word that we are indeed running a business, and start treating it like a business.

To survive in a business, you have to set a price that allows you to stay in business. We can't negotiate the delivery fees, but we can set a price by deciding whether a delivery offer makes business sense.

Rubber stamp concept in red ink saying I'm the Boss.
The best way to prevent exploitation is to stake your claim as the boss instead of letting the gig company be the boss.

Joleen, that's not really any different then you having the good sense to turn down my penny per word freelance offer.

The only way to not be exploited as a delivery driver who signs up as a business is to treat this as a business.

The decisions I make about deliveries have nothing to do with tips.

Other than tips are part of the bigger picture.

Here's the way I see it as a business owner. Doordash and the customer are working together to make an offer to have me deliver the food. Doordash then forwards the offer to me. Take it or leave it. Most times I leave it.

But I don't care who pays what part of the offer. Doordash might say hey, I'll pay the whole thing since the customer didn't contribute by way of tip. Or maybe they only pitched in $2 and the customer did all the rest.

All I care about is the bottom line. Does it meet my price?

I do a quick calculation of how much time a delivery will take, and what it pays per minute. If it pays enough per minute to meet my price, I'll take it. If not, then I treat it like that penny per minute freelance offer and pass. You'd be amazed at how often I get offered a delivery that pays $2 or $3 for seven or eight miles of driving in traffic.

You'll be amazed at how many times I get offered $3 for a delivery that goes 8 miles. You're mistaken about how Doordash does its minimum pay, that was an old model that was replaced a year and a half ago. Now the pay for a delivery can be as low as $2.

Screenshot of delivery offer from Doordash for $2, with a total of 5.6 miles to drive that would take close to a half hour to complete.

Here's an example of our version of that penny per word offer. Two dollars. 5.6 miles, from a restaurant that's notorious for long waits. This would take up close to a half hour.

Would you be willing to take a half hour of your time for two bucks, only to have it cost almost as much as that in car expenses?

I do agree with one part of your conclusion, but for a different reason.

You said this about our end of the bargain: “If you don't like it, then maybe driving for a delivery service isn't for you.”

You're right. The problem is, I think you misunderstand the bargain.

We never bargained to take every order. We signed up to perform deliveries as a business.

The only way the bargain is any good is if we get to make business decisions that allow us to operate in the black.

I do believe that delivery service isn't for a lot of people. That's because they don't understand they're running a business. They think it's just another form of employment.

Part of the bargain is understanding there is risk. Just like any other business, whether it be freelancing or opening a restaurant, there's no guarantee. That's the bargain. If you're not comfortable with the risk, it's like you said, delivery service might not be for you.

But here's the thing about a bargain. There's another side to it. If you're going to take a risk like this, the upside has to be enough to outweigh the risk.

If it's an honest bargain, we need to have the freedom to make the decisions that allow that upside.

Taking every offer no matter the amount is not the bargain.

Maybe the answer is to put the responsibility where it lays.

How about placing the responsibility with the one you made that contract with?

You made the agreement with Uber Eats or Grubhub or Doordash. It's on them to make sure you get your food.

And maybe part of it is on you. You made the agreement with a company that doesn't even call itself a delivery company. Whose fault is that?

I'm not sure I want to say this part because if any of them get wise, it could be the end of my business opportunity. But think about this: How stupid is it for a company to expect to fulfill deliveries using a model that doesn't allow them to control the process?

By law, they are not allowed to dictate how deliveries are done. They cannot tell me what deliveries to take. They're not allowed to supervise me or control me in any way. There's no quality here because there's no quality control.

You can't have control if you don't have employees.

Some day, someone's going to enter the market with a novel concept. Truly be a delivery company. They'll come at it with employees so they can control the process. They will focus on logistics and efficiency, getting more deliveries completed per courier than the current one courier to one order to one customer at one time.

If that happens, I think they'll blow the doors off everyone else.

Crazy thought, huh? A delivery company that's actually a delivery company.

In the meantime, understand your end of the bargain.

You should know what you're getting into when you place an order. This is a choice when you choose to order delivery through one of these platforms.

Maybe pay attention to the fact that they tell you they're not a delivery company.

Understand that if you don't tip, there's a good chance that Doordash, Grubhub and Uber Eats are going to try to push that delivery out for two or three bucks.

Honestly, they should be more up front with you about how this works. Don't hold your breath. I can tell you after three years that transparency isn't a thing with them.

Either way, now you know.

But now that you know, here's the thing. If you continue to insist that I deliver the food no matter the tip, that makes you complicit in the exploitation of independent contractors. Someone's going to take you at your word. They'll continue to accept those $2 and $3 deliveries where the delivery platform's not making up the difference.

It's one thing when the delivery companies offer me a $2 delivery. They know and I know that I can just say no.

But now that you know how this all works, are you still asking me to take a half hour of my day and maybe get enough to cover what it costs me to use my car? You want me to deliver food pretty much as a volunteer?

That's the reality that you accept when you place an offer through thee companies. That's your part of the bargain.

If you don't like it, then maybe ordering through a delivery service isn't for you.

This is why I created the EntreCourier website.

Entre stands for entrepreneur.

I'd think that would resonate with your site. I know you could argue we aren't full blown entrepreneurs. We didn't create the business model, anything like that.

But it's still a business opportunity. We're put into a business to business relationship. If it's done well and treated like a business, it can be a good opportunity.

What you are asking is for us to not exercise our right to make business decisions.

Too many people misunderstand this relationship. Delivery platforms refuse to have our back but still want us to act like employees. Too many contractors do exactly that.

I created this site to provide information and resources to help contractors take control. I want to help contractors apply business ideas to their contract relationship.

And that's why it was worth spending this time putting this letter together (sorry for the length!)

One of those business concepts is to set your price so you can stay in business.

Kinda like not accepting that penny per word offer to write for my blog.

A note about comments

Okay, this part is directed to anyone else reading this open letter:

I'm going to exercise a heavy editorial thumb on comments. Keep it respectful. I've seen some nasty comments already on forums and I fear she's getting some nasty responses as well. That's not what we do here.

We want the freedom that goes with being independent contractors. But if we're going to claim the role of business owners, it's fair to expect professionalism. It's fair to discuss your opinion, but do it with class.

Could this help someone else? Please share it.

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Christine Hubbard

Tuesday 30th of March 2021

Very well written response, I appreciate the time it took to put this together. I hope it is read by many so they can understand how it really works. I find so many customers are absolutely clueless and feel that all those extra fees they paid when they placed their order are given to the driver, so many of Doordash customers think we are Doordash employees. I think many of them would be surprised to learn that several of us deliver for multiple platforms.

ronald.l.walter

Tuesday 30th of March 2021

Thank you for the kind words. I think that's why I'm not as inclined to get upset at customers when they don't tip as well, because they often don't know. Doordash certainly isn't rushing to let them know how small the delivery fees are when they charge the customer as much as they do. Then again, I'm still not taking the delivery if it's not paying enough.

Hope Steen

Monday 22nd of March 2021

I couldn't have explained it better myself! My hat is off to you Mr. Walter. Thanks for breaking it down to those who obviously are armchair quarterbacks.

ronald.l.walter

Saturday 27th of March 2021

Thank you.