With 59 percent of the U.S. meal-delivery market under its control, there’s a good chance that the person who delivers your lunch today will be working for DoorDash. But unlike the distant, inscrutable algorithm that rules their schedules, DoorDash drivers remain all too human.
Take Rondu Gantt, a San Francisco DoorDash worker and graduate of University of California, Berkeley, whom Mission Local followed for a day of deliveries. Over the course of just a few hours, the silence of the app put him on edge; with a few good orders, his mood flipped to optimistic. To start, he had a strategy to win, but soon, he discarded the strategy and made a mad dash for cash.
“This job is not for people who are scared,” Gantt said. “If you’re scared of getting hurt, you shouldn’t do this.”
This is an app that, with its gamified elements, for many drivers can become a psychological gauntlet, challenging their decision-making abilities, pride, and sense of self, to be better able to work for the platform. “Incorporating game-based aspects could assist digitally engaged gig workers to become more intrinsically driven,” according to a study on the impact of gamification.
And that it did, but not exactly in a way that was exciting. Gantt isn’t playing a game; he’s trying to pay his bills. When he started his shift at 11:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, he was neither scared nor anxious. “My driving is insane, insanely good,” said Gantt, weaving through San Francisco’s traffic as smoothly as Bach’s “Partita No. 3 in E major,” which played in his silver Toyota sedan.
He left his bedroom in San Francisco’s Ingleside neighborhood late, but he still had four hours until the lunch shift ended at 3:30 p.m. He could make $50, he guessed; $90 would be ideal.
After a short period, Gantt received his first order of the day: $7.75, but no tip. Without hesitating, he clicked “Decline.”
Gantt often rejects unsuitable orders, quickly taking into account the size of the tip, the risk of getting a ticket for double parking, and the safety of the neighborhood. For him, being selective signals his independence from the platform.
“I have to fight these companies,” he said. “I can’t let them act with impunity.”
Gantt took the second order and others that followed. Even in the best of times, he still had to worry about parking, always finite and expensive in San Francisco, and whether a parking control officer might materialize to give him a ticket. If the restaurant he entered was busy, he might lose 20 minutes to a single delay. The contingencies meant that every order presented its own dilemma: Was he missing a better one?
But worst of all was the constant anxiety over whether another order would come.
By about 1 p.m., Gantt had filled only two orders: one from Philz Coffee and one from KFC. Worried about getting more, he entered an area marked red on the DoorDash map, an indicator of strong demand. Nonetheless, his phone remained stubbornly silent.
By 1:32 p.m., Gantt had made only $30.63 on three rides. The total included customer tips and a base pay. According to research by the University of California, Santa Cruz, tips account for almost 40 percent of a Dasher’s estimated earnings.
In time, as the incriminating silence of the app stretched on, Gantt began to blame himself. Was the app ignoring him, he asked, “because I didn’t take every order?”
In fact, he was doing exactly what drivers are advised to do: To reject orders lower than $2 per mile. “You have every right to decline an order, and your driver rating won’t suffer if you do,” advises a guide to Dashers composed by the gig worker service app Gridwise. “Most drivers believe that $3 or more is ideal.”
With fuel prices rising, turning down subpar orders has become a trend, with some Dashers even turning down nine out of 10 orders, according to Business Insider.
Still, Gantt started to panic. After a brief drive through Japantown and Fillmore, areas that are traditionally packed with orders, Gantt pulled over to save gas. He reclined in his seat, grabbed his Kindle, and tried to pick up his place in a book about the “Irish contribution to preserving western history.” It failed to work. He couldn’t focus. He stared at his phone, jumped out of the car, and stopped by a familiar pedicure shop, but was not in the mood.
Instead, he repeatedly rebooted the DoorDash app, hoping that the lack of new orders was simply a software or phone issue. It wasn’t.
By 2 p.m., Gantt had taken another order for $11.50 that included a $6 tip, but after declining two orders, one to the most congested part of the city (First Street), the other “disrespectfully” not offering a tip, his phone fell silent again.
He picked up his Kindle. Then quickly set it down. “It’s not forever!” he began to mumble to himself. “It’s not forever! … We are close enough to get some orders … Told you, $50 is realistic. … I’m okay. I’m not crying.”
A few minutes before the lunch shift ended at 3:30 p.m., Gantt became even more disheartened.
“The city is gonna become a more ruthless place,” he said.
“They choose the winners and losers,” he said referring to DoorDash “Now, they expect me to quit. Too many people will quit at this rate.”
DoorDash’s algorithm limits the amount of workers that can be online at the same time; at 3:30 p.m., it kicked Gantt off. His total earnings for the four hours: $42.13, or $10.53 an hour. The minimum wage in San Francisco is $16.99.
Gantt, 37, is all too familiar with being kicked out. His youthful fantasies of the dazzling lives he saw on television — professional wrestler, rapper, and film director — ended abruptly when his single mother kicked him out of his Queens home at the age of 19. “I come from a background where … not going to jail and being a productive member of society was kind of like the baseline,” he said.
He proved resilient, relocating to the West Coast and, by his mid-20s, graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in rhetoric.
“Everyone thought I was gonna be like the next Obama or some shit. I never believed in that,” he said.
A decade later, Gantt views his time at Berkeley as the outlier years of his life. “I just accidentally wound up going to Berkeley. It was never something that was planned,” said Gantt.
The “new kind of life” Gantt hoped a degree would give him never materialized. He “applied to everything” that suited his educational background and intellectual ability, but his most stable work came as a teacher for more than two years. He quit his last job teaching math in Oakland after six months. “I didn’t feel protected,” he said. “There were no men, there were no Black teachers other than me. You notice people giving you a hard time for no reason, and you’re like, ‘how long am I gonna last with this?’”
If Gantt’s story of being a college graduate without a stable job might seem exceptional, in truth, it’s typical. Almost 40 percent of delivery workers hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to research by UC Santa Cruz.
Gantt has been a gig worker for four years, and while it has its difficult days, he feels somewhat sheltered from the racism he experienced in “so-called predictable jobs,” he said. “That’s why I do this. This is the longest run I’ve ever had at a job for years.”
He earns his primary income, about $4,000 per month, from Lyft, but when his horn stopped working a few days earlier, he switched to DoorDash, an occasional extra gig he had done between Lyft rides and one that he did well at. Once he gets his horn fixed, he said, he will return to Lyft.
Instead of protecting him, however, on this Tuesday the DoorDash algorithm felt like it was pushing him around, he said.
To take command, he changed his strategy during the dinner shift. “Early in the hour, I’ll wait for something good. After 30 minutes, I’ll do anything that’s decent.”
He started again at 5:17 p.m., and after a run through Safeway to buy groceries for a customer, Gantt had made $22.75 by 6:08 p.m., more than half of his haul from the entire lunch shift.
Gantt’s mood shifted. He tapped the Toyota’s brakes to the rhythm of Bach, and even gave a small lecture on the music.
New orders, however, failed to follow.
“I’m assuming that, because of my rational acceptance rate, that they’re deciding to not give me the choice hours or the choice deliveries,” said Gantt. Nobody could test his hypothesis. But when the next order finally came at 6:37 p.m., Gantt took it without hesitation.
That became his new strategy. An order came, he accepted it. Discernment and criteria went out the window. His pace quickened. He drove four miles for $12 bucks, jaywalked against a red light and, by the time the light turned green again, he had picked up his order and dashed back to the car.
As his take reached $62 by 7:46 p.m., the lighthearted Gantt returned, making jokes about drivers who hold their wheels at 12 o’clock.
Things couldn’t be going better.
By 9:10 p.m., 10 minutes after the end of his four-hour dinner shift, Gantt had earned $87.50, or $21.88 an hour. And the new orders still came. DoorDash had granted him the ultimate boon; he’d been approved to work overtime!
The third shift of the day lasted until 10:11 p.m. and brought him another $27.50.
By the end of the day, his total gross: $157.13, or $14.28 an hour. Still below the minimum wage, but nonetheless, Gantt was feeling up.
He wants, he said, to someday start a small business and meet a smart wife. “I’m amazing with kids; my kids would be the best-adjusted kids that you probably ever met,” he said.
“But the thing is, I need an opportunity.”