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Interview #73- Global App Slavery and the Gig Economy with Jeff Thomas Black

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

Hi, and welcome to another episode of the Skeptical Leftist podcast. In this one, I've got an interview with Jeff Thomas Black, host and writer of the Full Dashclosure, a book and blog and podcast about DoorDash and AI and how it's impacting our world. And I have quite a bit of personal experience with the gig app or the gig economy. I thought I would do a little bit of a discussion about it before taking you into the interview.

So some of the things I know are very specific to our region, like Regina, Saskatchewan, just got Uber in 2019. We had an app called Skip the Dishes for those who are outside of the country, out of Canada. You might not know what that is, but Skip the Dishes is basically DoorDash in a lot of ways. It's like DoorDash. They deliver food. You get a notification, you pick it up at the restaurant, and you drive it to the person who ordered it. In 2019, in May, I got a new car, and at the same time, a buddy of mine said that Uber was coming to town, so we thought we would try it out, and I think it was the first month maybe, there was a guaranteed minimum of $20 an hour as long as you were logged into the app. So that was pretty handy. Especially I needed to move.I was going through a separation, a breakup at the time, and needed the money to put a deposit on a new place. And it was quite helpful. But it was interesting because you could see for those of us who started at the beginning, when it first came into our city, we made $20 an hour, guaranteed, no matter how many passengers we got. And we imagined that it would stay pretty similar because then the app would become part of like, it would be well known that this was in our city, and then that would mean that there were lots of customers. But that didn't really pan out.

At first it did, because after the first month, then for like two or three months after that, it was still very busy. There weren't a lot of drivers. So then when you wanted to work, you could make money, which I did. I worked, like, whenever I wasn't at my other job, I was in my car driving people for Uber. And when I felt like I wasn't busy enough, then I would sign up for shifts for Skip the Dishes.

In December of 2019, DoorDash came to our city. It might have been a little bit before that, but I signed up in December, and at the same time, I signed up for Instacart because I was making pretty decent money on my days off doing various gig apps. And it seemed like this was the way to make X and get ahead. But also I was grinding it out like, I was never not working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I would go to my job at the wastewater facility, so I would drive an hour and 45 to go to work. I would drive an hour and 45 to come back to Regina and I would shower, wash the car and get out there and do Uber or DoorDash or what have you, skip the dishes for three or 4 hours before I crashed. Got a couple of hours of sleep, went to work the next day, did it over again and I did that straight through for a number of months. Actually, in December when DoorDash came up, actually, that's when I started to slow down because it was unsustainable.

You cannot actually work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without eventually just getting so tired that you don't wake up when the alert comes. And that's what happened a lot of the time. So my ratings started going down in Uber, so I had to kind of pull back a little bit. But then in March of 2020, when COVID hit and the oil price was very low, I got laid off. So then for the next couple of months, the way that I was surviving as well as we got the CERB, I made sure that I was making, underneath the certain amount of money of however much you could make per pay period.

I would go and I would do DoorDash, and I would do Uber, and I would do various gig apps. But then near I'd say, I think it was October of 2020, I did go back to work at some point. And so then I kind of was doing both again, trying to make sure that my family was fed, because my partner still was not able to work due to various restrictions on her work visa, because she's not from Canada. And then my job wanted me to work at a facility with a schedule that I did not want to work at, and I didn't want to work at that facility. I don't like that facility. It's not the place I'd like to be and the schedule was no good for me. So then I told them I quit. I gave them my notice, and I went and I did gig work exclusively for six months from October till about March of the next year, 2021.

And unless you live that life, it's very hard to explain to someone how much you're working without actually making any money. You're in your car at least 18 hours a day. You have to be available and on call and in a quote unquote hotspot for the available time that you're on shift. There's a couple of things I'm missing here, because I don't know if this is how it was everywhere, but in our region, in our city, on DoorDash, you had to sign in and schedule shifts. I know that in other places.

People said that you can just sign on, but you couldn't do that unless you were a top dasher, a quote unquote top dasher in our area. So I had to schedule shifts at some point. If you deliver enough, then you get preferential scheduling, so you would be able to schedule a day before everybody else or two days before everybody else. But if you didn't have that, which I didn't, because I was trying to do that in between my work when I was still kind of tenuously working. And so then I had to wake up at 330 in the morning the day of the schedule release excuse me, so that I could schedule my shift for seven days from now.

So every single day, I had to wake up at 330 in the morning, schedule one week in advance for a shift to work for DoorDash Uber. You could still turn it on whenever you wanted, skip the dishes you had to schedule, and DoorDash, you had to schedule. Instacart you could kind of schedule, but also kind of do whatever you wanted. It was kind of a mix I eventually did, like, when I was laid off again or when I quit my job. I was a quote unquote top dasher, because I keep doing quotes because it's nonsense.

It's a top dasher. It's just a guy who works way more than everybody else so that you get good ratings and you deliver your food on time, and you whatever. But the thing is, like, even and we talk about this in the interview, even if you have a top Dasher rating and you technically are supposed to have priority over other people for orders, I was still sitting in a parking lot near my home that said it was a hotspot, that said that I had top Dasher status. And I was still doing that many hours of the day until finally I was like, well, I got fed up, and I would go and I would take an Instacart order. I would do two apps at the same time so that if I'm not getting enough DoorDash orders, then I would be on Uber and I would be waiting for a passenger.

And so you're multi-apping. You have to turn off one app when you're doing a delivery for the other one. And a couple of times I got caught, like, where I ended up having two orders at the same time on different apps. And so then you're rushing to deliver one and go pick up the other one and drop it off before you get another order. It was very stressful, like I say, and it wasn't enough money to live on, actually.

Like, I estimated that I think I needed to make at least $150 a day in order for us to survive. So, I mean, I did what I had to so that it would work, but if I hadn't supplemented it with income from an extra side job that I was doing for my dad. I don't think that it would have worked. I don't think it would have been possible. And I know that I'm kind of rambling on giving my personal history a little bit here, but this is something that I have a lot of experience with.

I know six months doesn't sound like a lot, but I had it gamed. Like, I had it as gamed as you can have it in my city. And so then I would be doing Instacart when I was down, I was doing Uber. I'm scrolling through apps, always checking, making sure I'm not missing notifications, making sure I'm logged in, making sure I'm in the most recent hotspot, making sure that I don't burn a lot of fuel without paying for it. Right?

You're never turned off. It's so stressful. It's the most absurd system. And I didn't know at the time how backwards the AI was. The algorithm.

I always assumed that it was like, okay, it's supposed to send the order to the guy who's nearest to the restaurant with the best rating or what have you, right? But you could have two guys, two drivers with the same status. You could have two drivers with the same rating, almost the same identical number of orders, identical in every way, 2ft away from each other. One guy will be getting orders all day, and the other guy will be getting nothing. And eventually it got to the point where, like, I had to quit, skip the dishes, because it insisted on sending me across the city to pick up orders that we're only paying for the short delivery.

Because you don't get paid for your drive to the restaurant. You get paid for your drive from the restaurant to the customer. So if it wants you to go 15 edge of the city and then pick up to a restaurant down in the south end of the city, pick up the order, and drive 3 minutes to the delivery, that's a $3 order, right? It's nothing. You don't get paid hardly anything, and nobody tips on these things.

And maybe tipping isn't the right way to solve this problem. Obviously it's not, because you should be on a wage system, and you should be getting a fair pay for fair work. But without tips, there was no way to make money on this. So it got frustrating to deliver orders like that that are very expensive meals and you know that you're picking it up at a fancy ass restaurant and delivering it to a fancy ass hotel room, and you get no tip at all. And it's frustrating.

I feel for the guys that are doing it. I had to quit myself because it's a lost cause. And then eventually the market gets filled up because there's no limit on how many drivers they allow for these apps. So then there's thousands or hundreds of drivers, depending on your area, and you could just like, say I had every app that was available in my city, and there was times when I was sitting for an hour and a half with nothing and I would just go home and I would be like, well, fuck it. Like, I might as well work on my podcast.

So that's kind of when I started this show. Well, that's when I spent a lot of time invested in the show anyway, but I've kind of gone on long enough. I really didn't want to go on this long talking about myself and my personal history with DoorDash, but it seems really relevant because that's literally what the interview is about. All right, so onto the pit. My family and I are moving, so production is less steady than it has been, and it's going to get even worse for a little while, but I hope that everybody's okay with that.

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Some clips from the episode

Here are some links for his stuff

Here is a sample of Jeff's content

Full Interview Here

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