Union Dash: Colorado's Gig Economy Drivers Are Joining Forces

Sandra Parker-Murray drives for DoorDash.
Sandra Parker-Murray drives for DoorDash. Catie Cheshire
Sandra Parker-Murray has been a union member for 25 years through the Communications Workers of America. Until September, she worked at Avaya, a business communications company, as a service coordinator.

The job brought her to Denver from Atlanta in 2008, and it would have taken her to Oklahoma this year if she'd followed the company. Instead, she stayed in Denver and works as a DoorDash driver, switching her CWA membership to Colorado Independent Drivers United, an emerging union for ride share, delivery, pedicab, taxi and limousine drivers.

DoorDash runs can’t replace all of her income, but they'll keep her going while she decides what she wants to do next. She’s also working for CIDU and will be lobbying for various workers'-rights issues in the next legislative session.

Parker-Murray says that she's glad she can still be a union member through this transition. Early in her career, she was harassed and intimidated by a manager, she explains, and the CWA helped protect her. She went on to become a union representative.

Helping get CIDU off the ground is her next union-related project. “I love driving and not having to report to anybody, but I just wish they would respect and value you more,” she says.

Food-delivery drivers like Parker-Murray are responsible for their own car maintenance, gas and schedule. While that gives them some flexibility, they are not treated like true independent contractors; instead, they're dependent on the app and policies of the delivery service.

Parker-Murray says that she's had issues with nearly every aspect of the DoorDash process, from an often-faulty navigation system to a lack of accounting for time spent in drive-thrus. And then there's the fact that it can send her all the way across town from south Aurora, where she lives, to Denver International Airport and back, and she won't know the destination until she accepts the order. While mileage is part of the base rate that DoorDash offers drivers for each order, Parker-Murray says that the correlation isn't strong enough to make long trips worth it.

Most times, she notes, DoorDash pays about $3 for a trip, and the rest of her pay is determined by customer tips.

CIDU members rallied in front of the Colorado Capitol and the Public Utilities Commission office in early October. They want the state to implement policies that would limit Uber, Lyft and other gig-driver companies to no more than 25 percent of the profits from each ride or delivery, and to require them to add a $2-per-ride gas surcharge that would go to the driver.

Among other things, the PUC oversees the 2014 Transportation Network Companies Act, which requires app companies to be transparent with drivers about how fares are calculated and what they will get paid for each job. But sometimes drivers are deactivated without being given a reason, they say. According to union members, the companies are not fully transparent about the causes, and the PUC hasn’t taken action.

According to Gail Conners, section chief of media relations, outreach and engagement for the PUC, the commission has heard 212 cases involving the company that owns Uber since the act passed, but those are only the investigation numbers. “When calls come in, they first go through Consumer Affairs, and many cases are handled there,” Conners notes. “Many are mitigated before an investigation is enacted.”

Since 2020, when the pandemic hit, there have only been seven Uber investigations and one for Lyft. Meanwhile, deliveries have gone up, as have complaints from drivers. CIDU would like to see the PUC strengthen its oversight and accelerate its actions.
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Sandra Parker-Murray is helping delivery drivers unionize.
Catie Cheshire
A key concern for the union is that drivers don't have the freedom to select their gigs the way that independent contractors are supposed to. Parker-Murray has worked her way up on the DoorDash tier — her term for the DoorDash system that rates drivers, promoting or demoting them — since she started delivering in 2020, but she says it's not clear how the tier ratings are determined.

Early on, she was confined to her home delivery area in Aurora, where she typically starts her dashes. Now she can go more places, but if she turns down too many orders, she could get bumped back down a tier. She'd like to reject shopping orders that require finding specific items in a grocery store, because those jobs are time-consuming and don’t pay more than typical delivery orders, but she sometimes has to accept them to keep her internal rating high.

“They don’t tell you how much it drops or how that works,” Parker-Murray says, so she’s always guessing.

Stephanie Vigil, a food-delivery driver who organizes for CIDU and is running for House District 16, cites so-called "unicorn orders" as an example of DoorDash's lack of transparency. Sometimes the app will give an order that offers potential earnings of the dollar amount “plus,” she notes; at the end of the ride, the driver finds out how much they made, and it’s always more than initially promised.

“Nice, huh?” Vigil says. “But what they're actually doing is they're turning this — which should be a matter of informed decision-making — into a slot machine. What you end up doing then, if you are one of those people who gets one of those unicorn payments every so often, is that you'll take a ton of those $6 orders, $4 orders, $3 orders, hoping that you'll get a big payout once in a while.”

On October 19, Parker-Murray got one such order, promising her $7.50-plus for picking up and delivering from Urban Sombrero. At that point, she’d been working for nearly an hour and a half without declining an order; she ended up making $12.50 on the trip, almost $4 more than she made on any other delivery that day, because the customer tipped $9 and DoorDash contributed $3.50.

When she completed the order, a notification from DoorDash popped up, explaining that her high acceptance rate and customer rating gave her priority for the order.

Vigil suggests that drivers should be better informed about how their actions change their tier rating and how much they’ll make each trip. Striving to qualify for priority on those “unicorn orders” traps drivers into taking jobs they wouldn’t otherwise accept.
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DoorDash has several DashMart locations in Denver, brick-and-mortar convenience stores that offer only delivery.
Catie Cheshire
"Dashers deserve to have their voices heard, which is why we’ve always created channels to seek their feedback," DoorDash says in a statement to Westword. "Time and again, Dashers have told us that they value the flexibility and high earning potential DoorDash offers. We’ll continue to engage with our community while supporting policies and products that best serve Dashers, merchants, and customers."

More people will have jobs like these as time goes on, Vigil predicts, so unionizing and advocating for those workers is important. She’s been a gig worker for years as a baker, a nanny and a driver, and says that if she's elected, she hopes to bring a voice to people who make up a large part of Colorado’s economy.

“There should be some basics,” Vigil says. “I have a say in the system. My time is valuable. I run my own work. Those are fair principles to work with. ... Drivers should have a say in the system. It can't just be run from the top down.”

Unlike members of many unions, those in CIDU don’t have a shared workplace or employer. They probably won’t have a collective-bargaining agreement, either. Rather, CIDU is a way for drivers to come together to advocate for better working conditions across the industry, Vigil says.

Though she definitely wants better working conditions for delivery drivers, Parker-Murray says she's learned some valuable information on the job, including which places tend to have clean bathrooms (Wingstop and Panda Express) and which to avoid (any grocery store). She’s also determined that ordering a drink through DoorDash is risky.

Drivers often have to fill up the drinks themselves, pressing on the lids without washing their hands or wearing gloves the way restaurant employees might. “What if my hands were nasty?” she asks.

When Parker-Murray runs into other delivery drivers, she tries to get them involved in the union — but many of them are hesitant to advocate for better working conditions because they don’t want to lose the benefits of being a gig worker. “They’ll take the unfair treatment because they like the flexibility, but that’s what [the companies] use to keep people from complaining,” Parker-Murray says. “It makes people think that they’re doing them a favor.”

Joining a union will be worth it, she tells them. “It protects your job,” she says. “Because people might not like you. You could be too light or too dark, too thick, too thin. They just have their reasons, because they're humans, and humans can be awful people sometimes.”

But humans can also be good people, she adds, which is why she likes the job. She'd just like it to operate under good rules, too.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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