Notable Calls: Restaurant Brands, DoorDash and Airbnb
Dave Levy and Nikos Kanelopoulos are trying to beat the algorithm. The two DoorDash drivers—Dashers, as the company calls them—are trying to persuade their peers to turn down the lowest-paying deliveries so the automated system for matching jobs with drivers will respond by raising pay rates. “Every app-based on-demand company’s objective is to constantly shift profits from the driver back to the company,” Levy says. “Our objective is the reverse of that.”
Their main tool is #DeclineNow, a 40,000-person online forum that provides a view into a type of labor activism tailored for the gig economy. While there’s no reliable way to quantify its impact, #DeclineNow’s members say they’ve already increased pay for workers across the country, including in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where Levy and Kanelopoulos live. But the effort raises difficult questions about the nature of collective action, and there are reasons to doubt whether using a company’s own software systems against it is a strategy that can prove effective for a sustained period of time.
DoorDash Inc. isn’t Levy and Kanelopoulos’s first algorithmic boss. The men met in 2015 while waiting for Uber passengers in their local airport lot. “That’s when the rates were good,” says Kanelopoulos, whose name is still saved as “Nick Uber” in Levy’s phone. But their income from Uber Technologies Inc. dwindled as the company’s app slashed rates, pushing their pay down to barely livable levels. Levy and Kanelopoulos worked for multiple gig economy platforms, experimenting with strategies for squeezing the most income out of them and hosting get-togethers of gig workers at the Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem, Pa., to compare notes.
The pair noticed that when one DoorDash driver declined a delivery, the platform would offer it to another for slightly more money. As independent contractors, there was nothing obliging them to take these orders, so they figured Dashers could band together to set a de facto minimum pay rate. In a relatively small market such as the Lehigh Valley, it didn’t take many people declining low-paying jobs to make a significant difference. “Then I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the name. Why don’t you just Decline Now?’ ” Levy says.
In October 2019 they launched the #DeclineNow Facebook group. They urge members to reject any delivery that doesn’t pay at least US$7, more than double the current floor of US$3.
In a statement, DoorDash said drivers are always free to reject orders but added that coordinated declining slows down the delivery process. The company encourages workers to accept at least 70 per cent of deliveries offered, which awards them with “Top Dasher” status. On #DeclineNow, low acceptance rates are a badge of honor. Levy rejects about 99 per cent of the jobs he’s offered, rapidly declining low-paying jobs to find enough lucrative ones to keep him busy.
Another tactic the company uses to discourage decliners is obscuring the full amount any job will pay by not disclosing the tip, making it harder for drivers to be picky. This and other nontransparent practices have led workers critical of the service to dub DoorDash’s app “Tony’s Casino,” a reference to Chief Executive Officer Tony Xu.
#DeclineNow’s strategy of selectively declining orders is well-known among DoorDash workers—and not universally accepted. Some question the strict minimum fee rule, citing regional price differences. Others find #DeclineNow to be mean-spirited and toxic, a place where people try to ridicule and bully others into going along with their plan. “They put out information as facts without backing it up,” says Amy Lee, a DoorDash driver in the Dallas suburbs who runs the gig economy site PavementGrinders. “Then they publicly humiliate anyone who doesn’t understand or agree.”
#DeclineNow has little patience for such naysayers. Users who question the US$7 minimum rule are punished with suspension from the group or, as the group’s moderators like to put it, “a trip to the dungeon.” One former moderator, Josie Lindström, claims to have personally suspended hundreds of people, saying the intolerance for dissent was necessary to keep the group moving in the right direction. “It has to be all of us, or it doesn’t work,” she says. But Lindström eventually quit, citing what she described as a toxic atmosphere.
Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings Law whose research focuses on worker experience in the gig economy, says the shaming may be part of whatever success #DeclineNow has in increasing pay. “It’s actually quite hard to get people to adhere to these types of collective actions if there’s not some kind of consequence,” she says.
But sustaining such collective action is complicated by the constant influx of new workers. The company will “give bonus incentives to a bunch of new drivers,” says Dubal. “And those drivers are not going to be a part of the club who know what to do. And then they’re like the scabs.” In trying to use algorithm-shifting strategies, she’s observed, drivers are “always really disappointed in the end.”
For all their critiques, Levy and Kanelopoulos say they like driving for DoorDash and are simply working to improve it without violating its terms of service. But they also wonder whether the company is listening. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Levy was waiting for orders in the area where he generally works. A Chick-fil-A delivery paying US$3.50, including tip, popped up on his phone. He reached to decline, which requires the driver to select from a list of reasons. “Notice how on there, there was no option that said ‘not enough money,’ ” he says. Read next: Businesses Can’t Fill Jobs Despite High U.S. Unemployment.