Shooting the messenger
Why the bike delivery business needs an overhaul
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ago, criminal negligence and dangerous driving charges against former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant were withdrawn after an incident that took my buddy Darcy Allan Sheppard’s life.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.