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Chapel Hill food delivery app economy sees influx of student workers amid pandemic

Delivery driver Daisy Otutuoloro prepares for a food delivery through Shipt in Raleigh, NC on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. Many unemployed workers in the Triangle have been turning to gig economy platforms such as these to supplement income lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caroline Jones had the idea to become a food delivery driver when she and her roommates were looking for part-time jobs this summer after COVID-19 canceled their initial summer plans.

Jones, a senior at UNC studying public policy and communications, started driving for Postmates in June.

“My expectations were so high that I considered halting my job search and having Postmates as my only job,” Jones said. 

Jones eventually decided to stop delivering for Postmates to avoid putting too much strain on her car. She said there were a few instances where she felt unsafe delivering food that also influenced her decision.

“During pickup for some restaurants I had to wait inside for 15 to 20 minutes for the meal surrounded by many people who were maskless, which was another source of discomfort for me,” Jones said. “However, there was definitely increased demand for Postmates because of COVID, so during lunch and dinner time, I was pretty much guaranteed to make decent money for a few hours of work.”

Jones recently started a marketing position with Good Uncle, a food delivery service new to the  Chapel Hill area.

Jones is one of several students who turned to delivery services after COVID-19 outbreaks disrupted their plans for the summer. Delivery apps like Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash have surged in popularity during the pandemic – Uber Eats orders grew 113 percent year over year in the second quarter of 2020.

Recent UNC graduate Blake Johnson began delivering for goPuff, a delivery service with an inventory much like a convenience store, about a month ago after his full-time position at Ernst & Young was postponed until January.

“I moved back home and wanted a flexible, easy job that would allow me to make some money in this in between time of being done with school and starting my full-time job,” Johnson said.

But students aren’t the only ones in Orange County turning to delivery platforms for supplemental income. North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in July, and many unemployed workers are still looking for ways to make extra cash.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 10 percent of workers rely on gig work for their primary source of income, and roughly one percent of workers have used online platforms such as Uber, Lyft or Instacart to arrange work.

Hilary Greenberg, a research associate for the Aspen Institute's Future of Work Initiative, said there has been some evidence for consumer uptick on the demand side for delivery platforms since COVID-19 restrictions reduced in-person shopping and dining, but some workers are having trouble finding customers.

“As more people have turned to these applications or nontraditional work more generally, it has definitely had impacts on those who have already been reliant over a longer period of time on gig work,” Greenberg said.

She said this is mostly dependent on the area, because in more urban areas like the Triangle, the demand for these platforms has typically increased more rapidly than in other more rural areas of North Carolina.

Greenberg said most gig economy workers used to be reliant on apps like Uber or Lyft rather than the food delivery and grocery delivery platforms growing in popularity now.

“The gig economy is dominated by transportation, and as you might expect, transportation is experiencing lower demands at this time,” Greenberg said.

Alexandrea Ravenelle, UNC sociologist and gig economy researcher, said she’s found that many people turning to this type of work as a primary source of income have had a hard time transitioning to other industries.

“I think it very much depends on age and race,” Ravenelle said. “If someone is older and they turn to this, they might find what they thought was their occupation of last resort becomes their last occupation, essentially before retirement.”

She said many people who thought they were ineligible for unemployment or struggled to access unemployment are turning to these apps as a potential social safety net.

“Because people think that this social safety net in these platforms is there, we are not as invested in society in terms of creating a better social platform – a better social safety net,” Ravenelle said.

Ravenelle said workers moving to these platforms is a possible sign of a more long-term trend of shifting responsibilities from corporations to individuals.

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"The risk of a slow period and not earning income — that’s not borne by the company, that's borne by the individual who still has to pay the car insurance on their Uber," Ravenelle said. 


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