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The Shadow Bosses of the Gig Economy

DoorDash took a page from traditional restaurant managers: it stole workers’ tips. But even as it reversed course under public pressure, the delivery platform highlighted the exploitation at the core of capitalist employment.

A Pizza Hut delivery driver on June 29, 2018 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Shannon O'Hara / Getty

DoorDash, Postmates, GrubHub, Seamless, InstaCart: these food-delivery companies promise to disrupt the employer-employee relationship and innovate away the downsides of working in the food-service industry.

Their trick is that there are no bosses and no workers at all, or so it appears. The company is a service provider, and anyone ordering or delivering food is a service user. The platform is simply connecting users, some of whom are paying and others of whom are getting paid. A worker gets to make their own schedule and accept jobs at their convenience, like a freelancer. They can “be their own boss.” On the face of it, that sounds a lot nicer than getting ordered around by someone else for the entirety of your shift.

But even though plenty of food-delivery workers have good things to say about these gig platforms, they’re riddled with trapdoors. From food service to ride-sharing, the companies that operate them can easily wash their hands of an employer’s most basic duties to full-time employees — like providing health benefits, steady wages, and job security — and then turn around and act exactly like bosses in all the worst ways.

Remember: just because you can’t see your bosses doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And if they’re there, they’re exploiting you, because that’s what capitalist bosses do.

DoorDash recently showed what that looks like in action. The company came under fire for taking a page right out of the traditional food-service industry playbook and paying its delivery drivers in tipped wages. In restaurant-world parlance, tipped wages are when a boss takes the tips given to a server and uses them to meet a minimum wage requirement for that server.

That’s wonky, but think of it like this: you tip $2 on a $10 burger. If you’ve never worked in food service, you probably think that the extra bucks are like a “thank you” to the server for taking your order and bringing the burger to your table. Instead, in the very common tipped wage system, the restaurant appropriates those funds and uses them to make up the difference between the flat rate they’re willing to pay — as little as $2.13 in many states — and the ordinary minimum wage in that state.

Your tip is not actually a gratuity to the server. It’s a subsidy to the boss.

DoorDash got caught doing exactly the same thing. Imagine you’ve placed an order with DoorDash at a weird hour in bad weather. You know the delivery worker is having a tough time reaching the place, but they stick with it, and you finally get your spicy late-night chicken wings. You are a person of conscience and you realize that wasn’t an easy delivery, so you tip the DoorDash driver extra as a demonstration of respect for the effort they put in.

But they never see that tip, or even find out about it. They just get the same flat rate as ever, and the boss makes a higher profit that night, even though it wasn’t some tech executive braving the dark and stormy roads to fulfill your snacking needs.

Just like InstaCart before it, DoorDash only stopped paying in tipped wages in response to a public outcry. The outcry was not without reason: tipped wages are really deceptive, and only work in favor of bosses, not workers. People intend tips for individual workers with whom they’ve had personal interactions. They don’t intend them to go into the big corporate cash pool and be doled out to meet minimum requirements for those workers. What a tipped wage system means is that the harder workers work and the higher the tips, the less bosses have to worry about paying workers out of their own pockets.

Tipped wages are a source of controversy in the world of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Workers obviously want to be paid better, but they’re not sure who to believe. On the one hand, restaurant owners insist that they must appropriate and re-disburse tips as a portion of wages in order to stay afloat, and that if they capsize, they’re taking jobs down with them. Their hand is forced, they say — even though restaurant sales and profits have been growing nonstop for an entire decade now, while wages have remained stagnant.

On the other hand, workers’ advocates say it would be fairer to pay workers the ordinary minimum wage before tips, and consider tips a genuine gratuity. As evidence that this would be better for workers, the Economic Policy Institute cites research showing that in the states where tipped workers are paid $2.13 an hour and tips are used to bring that up to the ordinary minimum wage, 18.5 percent of waiters, waitresses, and bartenders live in poverty. That number goes down to 11.1 percent when tipped workers are paid an ordinary minimum wage. (The fact that people making minimum wage are living in poverty at all is a separate conversation.)

DoorDash made up its mind on this controversy: that is, it decided to behave exactly like an ordinary restaurant. But even in changing its mind, it demonstrated the exploitative nature of employment under capitalism: the bosses have the power to make policies unilaterally, with no input by the workers (sorry, users). They can then claim they’re the best policies possible for workers under the circumstances, without those workers even having the power to inspect the books to see if they’re telling the truth.

The gig platforms promised to upend everything we knew about work — but what they really meant was that they wouldn’t be paying for anyone’s health care or retirement like a decent employer. They would only behave like employers when it came to stiffing workers and increasing profits.

The reality is that DoorDash has workers and bosses, and so does every other gig platform company. When they tell you that you can “be your own boss,” they’re lying. That post is taken by someone else, someone who has just as much — and in many cases more — power over your working conditions as a normal boss.

The main difference is how good the invisible gig bosses are at cloaking their exploitation in the language of innovation. They’re bosses alright — they’ve just retreated into the shadows.