On the surface, Postmates seems like a great idea. The app allows customers to easily order any item from any restaurant or store in Seattle (including Starbucks) and have it delivered to their doorstep in less than an hour. Surely there is no better proof that a benevolent God exists than being able to get Ezell's fried chicken delivered to your front door.
As Postmates tells it, they are fulfilling an unmet need, conjuring up scads of previously nonexistent business for local restaurants and, in the process, creating well-paying, flexible jobs for all the cute, scruffy, underemployed bike messengers of the world. It seems like an ultra-win.
But the Postmates system shortchanges restaurant workers—specifically, by cutting into their tips. And that's created a hostile environment between bike messengers and food-service workers.
"People need to realize that it goes from your phone to this third party that calls the restaurant, then the driver goes there, doesn't get paid very much to go there, doesn't get paid to sit there, doesn't have money to tip the restaurant, and then takes it to you, who doesn't have the change in your pocket to give the driver," said Daniel Kriem, who has worked on both sides of the fence—as a former bike courier for Postmates and as a former employee of Honey Hole, which receives Postmates orders. "It creates resentment for everybody except the people who can afford the service. All the other parties involved resent each other, even though they're all in it together. They're all getting fucked over together."
It's certainly no secret that resentment abounds in the Postmates system. Joshua Sherman, a bartender at Stellar Pizza in Georgetown, described his experience with Postmates as "fucking annoying," referring to the lack of tips. Kriem told me that employees at Honey Hole would push Postmates orders to the back of the ticket rail and generally treat the couriers like crap. Dave Meinert—of Lost Lake, Big Mario's, the 5 Point, and the Comet Tavern—told me, "My employees hate them. That [the Postmates] get tipped and don't tip out the back of the house is really fucked." A lot of animosity is directed at the couriers, which is understandable, if regrettable.
Here's how the system works: Customers place orders through the Postmates app, which includes a delivery charge ($5 for Postmates' merchant partners and a varying fee based on distance for everyone else) and a flat 9 percent "service charge." The delivery fee is split 80/20 between the driver and Postmates, respectively. Most people would logically assume that the 9 percent service fee goes to the hardworking people slathering mayonnaise on your sandwich. Sadly, they would be wrong. According to Postmates spokesperson April Conyers, that fee goes to "the company and is applied toward operations."
Technically, Postmates' system does allow for tipping restaurant workers, but most customers wouldn't know that because the mechanism to do so isn't clear. You could either leave special instructions in the notes field or add a tip as a "custom order." But Corey Crammond, a former community manager for Postmates in Seattle whose job was to provide internal customer service to Postmates' fleet of more than 600 couriers, said that in the thousands of deliveries he'd reviewed, he'd seen a customer do this "maybe once." A former courier for Postmates who requested anonymity said he "never got that [instruction]. Not once. Zero tips! It's frustrating."
Couriers have a better chance of getting tips, though even then it's not great. The Postmates system used to require customers to sign for their order on the courier's phone, which at least allowed for a brief moment of human interaction (and increased the likelihood of a tip). But Postmates moved the checkout process to the customer's phone, with three suggested amounts or a "no tip" option. It's no surprise that couriers saw a significant decrease in tips after the switch ($1 to $1.75 less on average, according to Postmates).
Postmates promises couriers the opportunity to make up to $25 per hour, but the couriers I spoke to said that would require seamless deliveries and steady tips. Postmates uses an algorithm to help connect couriers to a constant stream of jobs, though many couriers complained that during busy periods, the ratio of couriers to jobs was too high for anyone to be guaranteed constant work.
This isn't the first time that Postmates' business model has come under criticism. Couriers have argued that they should be treated as employees instead of contract workers, which is the basis of a current class-action lawsuit. Another lawsuit disputes the payment structure for Postmates' customer-service reps.
In general, takeout orders don't generate much in tips—Eric Banh, owner of Ba Bar and Monsoon, said bluntly, "You win some, you lose some"—but even a small amount (say, a buck for your sandwich or the change from your latte) can go a long way in helping restaurant workers make ends meet. And while tipping on carryout food might seem excessive, given that most people associate tips with the experience of sitting down and being waited on, a whole lot of labor goes into getting those biodegradable brown boxes packed up and ready to go in 15 minutes or less.
Not getting tips is an inherent risk of working in a tipped industry, of course, but workers have come to expect them, and that expectation is built into restaurants' pay structures (although the recent minimum-wage increase has changed this dynamic somewhat). Postmates ignores this dynamic altogether, which, again, may be good for the customer, but it isn't so great for workers. When asked about the process of tipping a restaurant worker through the app, and whether this ever happens, Postmates' Conyers's only response was, "That's up to the customer."