Shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger

Why the bike de­liv­ery busi­ness needs an over­haul

NOW Magazine - - CONTENTS - By DAVID PHINN news@now­toronto.com | @now­toronto

Cy­cling is sup­posed to be fun, right? Es­pe­cially in the spring, sum­mer and au­tumn, when sun­light is more plen­ti­ful. Some would rather work outdoors re­gard­less of what their oc­cu­pa­tion is. You’re not cooped up in a cu­bi­cle or at a desk, the view can be nice, and the free­dom from a su­per­vi­sor lurk­ing over your shoul­der ap­peals. So why do so many bike mes­sen­gers look so screw­faced and vexed, as if road rage and frus­tra­tion were their per­ma­nent rid­ing com­pan­ions?

Many of us can re­late to the feel­ing re­gard­less of our job or where we live. But lots of road users re­gard bike mes­sen­gers as highly an­noy­ing and be­lieve they’re all high school dropouts with lit­tle am­bi­tion to do any­thing else. In re­al­ity, the women and men do­ing this job range from older teens and 20­some­things find­ing their way in life to par­ents with young chil­dren, grand­par­ents, artists and mu­si­cians, college and univer­sity stu­dents and ev­ery­one in be­tween.

If you’re ever able to make it out to a Cy­cle Mes­sen­ger World Cham­pi­onship (yes, that ex­ists) you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve been around the same­day mes­sen­ger in­dus­try for over 17 years. I’m also a mu­si­cian, and some­times my love of cy­cling shows up in my stage work. About seven years ago, crim­i­nal neg­li­gence and dan­ger­ous driv­ing charges against for­mer On­tario at­tor­ney gen­eral Michael Bryant were with­drawn af­ter an in­ci­dent that took my buddy Darcy Al­lan Shep­pard’s life. Within hours of that de­ci­sion, I had a cho­rus in my head, and with the help of @red­so­nia, @35thFoul­na­tion and @bike­tree, a song and video that can be found on YouTube were born.

As a mu­si­cian, I ap­pre­ci­ate the flex­i­bil­ity of bike mes­sen­ger work, es­pe­cially when it pays well, but for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons that’s been hap­pen­ing less of­ten.

Few couri­ers make a salary, some have a daily guar­an­tee, but most are paid by straight com­mis­sion. All but a few are ex­pected to pro­vide their own equip­ment and pay for their own re­pairs. If the com­pany pro­vides a ra­dio or phone for work, they charge fees for those rang­ing up­wards from $50 to $80 a month.

The re­al­ity is that most of these “per­sonal bro­kers” earn­ing “com­mis­sions” are grossly un­der­paid em­ploy­ees. The joke among the rank­and­file is “When they want some­thing done, you’re an em­ployee. When it comes time to pay you, you’re a per­sonal bro­ker.”

My rookie year was 1996. Min­i­mum wage was $6.85. Gas was .56/litre. The pay wasn’t great back then ei­ther – I made $240 for a full two weeks work­ing dur­ing the win­ter storm in 1999 that caused Mel to call in the Army.

The in­dus­try needed an over­haul then, and still does. Since that time, gas prices and the min­i­mum wage have prac­ti­cally dou­bled, yet the earn­ings of a lot of mes­sen­gers for a 40hour work­week end up be­ing less than min­i­mum wage for what’s clearly a dan­ger­ous job that can re­sult in se­ri­ous in­jury or fa­tal­ity.

A min­i­mum stan­dard of pay should be es­tab­lished. I per­son­ally like the daily­guar­an­tee­or­com­mis­sions, whichever­is­higher model.

The big­gest cheque any bike mes­sen­ger has ever shown me was for $2,300 for 12 days’ work. That was about six years ago, long af­ter email and faxes started eat­ing into our work­load and bot­tom line.

Car mes­sen­gers and walk­ers are get­ting hosed as well, but I can only speak from my point of view.

Road ac­ci­dents, in­clement weather, snooty clients who are sel­dom sat­is­fied, me­chan­i­cal prob­lems, be­ing too busy to eat and bad dis­patch­ing can put couri­ers in a foul mood be­fore in­ad­e­quate pay even en­ters the pic­ture.

A lot of mes­sen­gers can re­late to what I call the “mys­tery cheque” – when the amount is far smaller than ex­pected and your bud­get has to change on the fly. It’s not un­com­mon for com­pa­nies to bla­tantly rip off work­ers by with­hold­ing ac­crued sur­charges re­lated to weight, redi­rected trips and wait­ing time.

Get­ting mad at the sight of an un­der­whelm­ing cheque and quit­ting on the spot is rife in the mes­sen­ger busi­ness and per­pet­u­ates the re­volv­ing door that en­ables own­ers to con­tinue the present sub­stan­dard regime. Most work­ers are un­aware that they’re en­ti­tled to more than their last cheque and a kick in the ass.

Failed at­tempts by CUPW to form a union not­with­stand­ing, a strong mes­sen­ger as­so­ci­a­tion could help drag the in­dus­try out of the 80s, but change would ul­ti­mately still come down to the own­ers.

How would com­pa­nies com­pete? By of­fer­ing a bet­ter, more ef­fec­tive ser­vice that well­paid mes­sen­gers would be happy to pro­vide, in­stead of con­stantly cut­ting prices to win ac­counts, to the point where not even mon­keys could live on the peanuts we’re earn­ ing per de­liv­ery.

That par­tic­u­lar owner ac­tion over the years has re­sulted not only in gross re­duc­tions in mes­sen­ger earn­ings but in the degra­da­tion of ser­vice. Pay­ing dis­patch­ers more money would help.

I can re­call a time when dis­patch­ers boasted about how much money they could earn for couri­ers. Nowa­days, a lot of them seem more in­ter­ested in telling work­ers who ques­tion their logic that they’re the boss, know­ing the re­volv­ing door will de­liver an­other worker who’s naive and will­ing.

Out of fear of los­ing an ac­count, own­ers send us off with a fetch­or­else at­ti­tude and lit­tle or no thought paid to lin­ing up mul­ti­ple calls in one di­rec­tion.

When I was once stuck in an el­e­va­tor on a de­liv­ery, the owner blamed me full bore. I guess be­ing trapped in the lift wasn’t help­ful to the com­mend­able but ridicu­lous com­pany

pol­icy of pick­ing up ev­ery­thing in 15 min­utes or less.

This owner was be­yond un­rea­son­able. Once, I needed to stop and eat be­cause I’d lit­er­ally been mov­ing in a scrib­ble pat­tern for six hours. His re­sponse: “Eat on the run,” some­thing driv­ers and walk­ers can do with­out is­sue but cy­clists need­ing a proper meal would have a chal­lenge at­tempt­ing.

Most lo­cal mes­sen­ger com­pa­nies are quick to balk at pretty much all the rights that “per­sonal bro­kers” are sup­posed to be al­lowed to set, like their own hours. They ex­pect a min­i­mum of 40 hours ex­clu­sive cov­er­age but don’t want to pay work­ers like em­ploy­ees.

Per­son­ally, I will al­ways love cy­cling and the mes­sen­ger com­mu­nity, but I hate feel­ing like I’ve been un­der­paid for years.

David Phinn has rid­den through thick and (mostly) thin as a bike mes­sen­ger in Toronto since 1996.

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