I am a DoorDash driver who’s been elected to the Colorado State House. Food delivery companies are gamifying your tips and making it harder for drivers to earn a living wage. Here’s what you can do about it

February 9, 2023, 3:48 PM UTC
Stephanie Vigil is a DoorDash driver and representative for the Colorado State House, District 16.
Courtesy of Stephanie Vigil

I have been an independent delivery driver (commonly known as a “gig worker”) for about five years now. I have done jobs on pretty much every third-party delivery platform you can think of. I do this work as an independent contractor, so of course my earnings vary from one offer to the next, but whether I can earn enough money to actually take home some pay after deducting fuel and other costs comes down to the tips I receive. I’ve seen tips ranging from $20 to no tip at all.

This is not written to guilt readers into tipping their delivery drivers more (though that would be great!). Instead, I want to expose something that the well-intentioned delivery customer likely does not realize: That generous tip you added before you clicked “order”? Well, it might not be incentivizing better or faster service as you’d hoped. The reality is, your tips are frequently used by DoorDash and other delivery platforms to subsidize the service for low-tipped offers and boost their profits at everyone’s expense.

Most of us order food delivery or delivery of some sort. And most of us assume that when we tip a driver, our money goes directly to them. You may even assume that if you tip more, you might get a shorter wait time. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. DoorDash, in fact, often obscures the full tip from a driver up until the point that they’ve completed a delivery, and your driver would have no idea you tipped so generously until after they’ve handed your order to you.

Let’s say you’ve ordered a meal, paid a $3 delivery fee (which largely goes to the driver), and left a $10 tip for an eight-mile trip. On the driver’s app, they may see that whole payout, but frequently, the app will conceal quite a lot of the total and make a lower-paying offer to the driver–say, $4 or $8-not $13.

If the driver accepts this offer, they won’t get that big reveal until afterward. Sounds like that would be a welcome surprise, right? It does feel good in the moment–but in the long run, it’s not a great pattern if the idea behind the application is to be a platform for independent contractors, who need accurate information in order to make decisions about our work.

Since there are many cases when a customer leaves a low or even zero-dollar tip, and discerning drivers wouldn’t ordinarily take such weak offers, a delivery platform has a lot to gain by getting drivers to take the chance on surprise higher tips.

The thing is, that lucky hand doesn’t–and can’t–always happen, and that’s exactly why the platforms play the concealed tip game. The base pay is minuscule: $2.50 for short distances and $3.25 or $3.50 for anything more than a few miles. In fact, DoorDash will sometimes even stack a couple of offers, putting together a decent paying offer with an untipped offer, and then shaving off an additional 50 cents to try to get you to deliver one of them for $2 flat. You can only “unassign” so many offers after you’ve accepted them, even if the app company is violating its own terms.

Food delivery platforms like DoorDash say this system is fairer for both customers and drivers–and that it supports base pay when drivers don’t get tips.

But having such a clear upper hand on the disclosure of information is a powerful position for big tech platforms. The odds are all on the house, as they say.

They pose as applications on which you can “work for yourself” and “be your own boss,” and for the majority of drivers, this is precisely why we do it. Yet the manipulation of our data allows the company to turn that application into a sort of slot machine. How many $4 offers would you take if there’s an outside chance that one of them will occasionally pay you $20 or more? All of them? Half of them?

As a customer of both the independent driver who serves you and the food delivery app, you have no way of knowing whether your offer is being presented at face value or used to gamify the system. You could tip in cash, but again: discerning drivers don’t take such orders. In unofficial channels of communication, mostly via social media, drivers’ opinions on this matter vary wildly. Should you take more offers and thereby increase your odds of striking it rich on a “unicorn” offer, or should you say “no” more often and stick to reliable middling offers?

Driver tools such as the Para app have popped up to help drivers gain transparency into pay, operate more safely, and better manage their work, and they’ve been incredibly popular among drivers in the know. Unsurprisingly, DoorDash has been especially aggressive in putting up firewalls to block drivers from this critical information. They don’t want us to know what we will be paid. If I’m actually my own boss, I should be free to use whatever tools I believe are best for my work to have clarity on the terms of each job, own my data, and place a high value on my precious time.

Unfortunately, we are operating on an outdated model of contracted work that was established in a slower-moving time, and with more clearly defined jobs. Unlike a freelance web designer or plumber or landscaper, our contract offers pop up on a screen, while we’re driving, and we have sometimes as little as 30 seconds to accept or decline. The scale and pace at which we operate have left tech platforms just enough chaos to exploit: they can be hands-off like a non-employer one second, then suddenly very dictatorial bosses the next. Besides concealing crucial info like tips, there are also issues with forced pausing, unfair and discriminatory bad reviews that are difficult to remove, and even arbitrary deactivations, without a consistent review and reinstatement policy.

It is clear that big tech companies view gig workers as nothing more than pieces of an algorithmic puzzle the purpose of which is to generate profit. That’s their imperative of course–and pretty standard in our economy. But there is a different imperative: a call to action to the nearly 60 million Americans who work in the gig economy. Drivers–Let’s come together to demand full transparency via organizations like DriverRights.org, a coalition of drivers and organizations fighting for gig workers’ rights, enforcement of regulations, and a seat at the table.

I also call on the millions of Americans who rely on delivery drivers to bring us our food and supplies, and who’ve relied on this essential work to an even greater degree throughout the pandemic: You as the customer can voice your discontent that your generous tips don’t serve their intended purpose. If you, like us, have to work for a living, then we are on the same side.

You can add your voice to our petition and use social media to pressure the delivery platforms to change these exploitative practices by tagging them in your posts and sharing this article with others.

New York City has already recognized this exploitive approach by food delivery platforms and taken steps to require tips to be disclosed to delivery workers. The Federal Trade Commission is also taking note and has outlined that it will begin to take action to protect gig workers from deceptive and unfair practices, including algorithms and misrepresentations about pay and work terms.

What we need now is a ripple effect and ultimately a tidal wave that shifts the balance of power so that these companies can’t lord over us. They need us–workers and consumers–even more than we need them. We can’t let them forget that.

Stephanie Vigil is a DoorDash driver and representative for the Colorado State House, District 16.

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