27 April 2020
For the next few months we’ll be giving you some Poor and Working Class writing about the Covid-19 crisis, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday we’ll be putting out experiences, ideas and reflections from the economic margins.
In our first post, Ben Szulecki writes about his experiences as Deliveroo courier in Bristol.
It started optimistically enough “You’ll be busier than ever then?” or “Great time to be a delivery rider!” especially as the harsher ebbs of winter had begun to give way to spring….and sun. When I geared up for a ride, I had an extra sense of anticipation in me, like I was starting the job anew. What was going to happen? How busy will it be? What will I have to do differently?
Since joining the gig economy and Deliveroo just over a year ago I had become accustomed to the meandering ‘sweet spots’ of the job. Finding out when the best times to go out are, ferreting out the shortcuts and twittens of the city, learning to give a wary eye at certain orders from certain restaurants, figuring the best times to take breaks or find a public toilet between orders. Like many, Deliveroo & Uber Eats (more recently) were my main source of income and I needed to be cycling almost every day to pay my bills and debts. Gradually I found my way of making it work for me and my life.
You find your pattern of earning….the beat that the city pays you.
Each ride became a cautionary venture into a quietening world as shops and people and cars all withdrew from the streets. My fellow delivery cyclists seemed to reach out with smiles from their usually aloof demeanours and the motorcycle-helmeted moped riders even paused their perpetual phone calls to engage others. There was a growing sense of camaraderie in the disparate self-employed workers as we anticipated the changes coming.
Within the first few days of the outbreak it would swing between very busy and not busy at all as those staying home reached for the well-known way of getting food when stuck indoors. We all felt this would soon settle into more regular demand as more restaurants transitioned to delivery service….and even a few supermarkets. The chaos heralded a new food delivery world. Updates from Deliveroo introduced contact-free options for customers and I started adding disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser to my regime.
But there was something in the eyes of the restaurant managers, like they knew something else was coming…..and with unassuming swiftness it did.
I enjoyed being busy, enjoyed being a ‘key worker’ as I sped through the quiet of the city. I had been hit by a car the previous year and had never quite shaken some of the nerve damage in my hand or earned enough to look at fixing a broken tooth. I had been keen to find another reliable, meaningful or better paid role. However, the car-free streets, the seeming busyness, and the sense that being a cycle courier was now a needed job (not just a Friday-night treat) all kept me pedalling.
Each day though, customers and staff faded from the restaurants, the food courts in shopping centres became skeleton crews dotted with more delivery riders than anyone else. Some restaurants had closed entirely already, either because they could not survive on delivery’s alone or because they were not set up for them. Increasingly more and more couriers were getting squeezed into fewer and fewer restaurants.
Another furtive glance at the “looking for orders” message on my phone had become a recurring theme as I made my way back from a 3-hour lunch shift that generated had £4.38. My partner works for the NHS so we had turned the shed into my ‘decontamination-zone’ where I would take off my gear and have a good clean up before entering the house. A growing sense of unease started to creep into me in those moments, despite my precautions, as I wondered about the risk we were taking by going out. That risk against dwindling returns was becoming a worrying balancing act.
When the lockdown came into full force, Deliveroo had brought in a number of extra measures like all orders being contact-free and a 2-m spread between couriers waiting at restaurants. Those few places that still did delivery didn’t admit anyone in so we would have a large disordered group waiting for 30-40 mins oftentimes for one £3-4 order. The camaraderie before had eroded to shared frustration and no small amount of anxiety about not just our own health but our customers, family, staff, and general public. The small embers of rationale I held onto like ‘doing my part’ and ‘some money is better than no money’ or ‘it’ll get better’ were starting to feel like a misremembered story I told myself.
When my partner seemed to show symptoms and had to self-isolate, I knew it was time to call it a day.
After a lengthy chat with NHS 111 I got an isolation note and entered into my home with a larger than expected amount of relief. Making £10-20 a day had no longer been worth the risk (if it ever was) and I was glad I could help look after my partner as she transitioned to working from home. We soon enveloped ourselves in the goodwill and charity that had sprung up among our neighbours….sharing and caring as we were able to.
Without sick pay, and my funds diminished from lack of work, I found myself diving into the rapidly thickening quagmire of the Universal Credit call queue. My struggles now are battling with the bureaucracy of extracting any sort of support from DWP or Deliveroo, which after 3 weeks had not yielded anything so far.
Despite this, I find myself emerging from self-isolation and the desolation of work with a renewed sense of change. I am working with a career’s advisor to find a new role, I have reconnected with friends and family, my partner is doing well and is safe working from home, I have signed up to help with local business and the council doing work where needed, and feel like I may be getting to make the personal changes I couldn’t before.
BioBen Szulecki is Bristol-based cycle courier who writes both creative and uncreative works in his spare time. Currently in the chrysalis stage of changing his career to the field of writing.