‘My turn to get robbed’: delivery workers are targets in the pandemic

Ebelio Gabriel, who said he went to the police when a man stopped him and took his bicycle, but no arrest was made, in Brooklyn, January 21, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
NEW YORK — Manuel Perez-Saucedo was making his last food delivery of the day in Brooklyn one evening last fall when two men on a motorcycle trailed him for several blocks and then passed him.اضافة اعلان

But when he stopped his electric bicycle outside his destination on a dark street minutes later, the men emerged from the shadows. One had a pistol.

“I knew it was my turn to get robbed,” he said. He remembered picturing his 2-year-old son while the men took his bike, which cost him about $1,600. “I didn’t want to leave him without a father.”

Perez-Saucedo, 33, is one of a growing number of delivery workers who have been victims of robberies and other violent assaults as their numbers have swelled since the pandemic first swept through the nation’s largest city a year ago.

The delivery of restaurant orders and other goods has become a bigger part of daily life across the nation since the pandemic forced millions of people indoors. And in New York City — where the disease has taken nearly 30,000 lives — the delivery workers have become a lifeline for people working from home and for vulnerable residents who have been warned against going outside.

On any given day thousands of men, and a growing number of women, can be seen crisscrossing city arteries, transporting takeout, groceries and medicine in plastic bags on top of their well-worn bikes.

But their visibility has also made them targets for opportunistic criminals looking for a quick profit through robbery, as the unemployment rate has spiked into the double digits and economic desperation has grown in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods, which were already hit hard by the pandemic.

Stolen electric bikes can be easily sold on the streets for cash or dismantled for their parts, the police and workers say. The bikes can cost thousands of dollars and are vital tools for the workers, who often make less than $60 a day. Many have come to rely on the bikes, despite the steep price tag, because they can go about 32 kmph, enabling workers to travel farther and make more trips to increase their slim bottom lines.

The theft of electric bikes doubled during the first year of the pandemic, rising to 328 in 2020 compared with 166 the year before, according to police data obtained by The New York Times.

Investigators said robbers often use fraudulent credit cards to call in bogus orders and lure delivery workers to secluded locations. The delivery workers then are faced with two dire options: let go of the pricey bikes they need to remain employed or risk injury and even death.

“We believe more often than not it is a setup,” said Rodney Harrison, the New York Police Department’s chief of department, who until recently oversaw the detectives’ bureau.

The northern section of Manhattan, Southern Brooklyn and the Bronx have seen the biggest spikes in robberies, investigators said. Most of the victims were threatened with sharp objects, guns and other weapons.

Ligia Guallpa, the director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that represents immigrants working in low-wage jobs, said many delivery workers do not report robberies and assaults. A large percentage of them lack the documentation to work in the country legally and don’t speak English fluently. Many fear filing a police report could lead to deportation.

“They are on their own on the streets,” Guallpa said.

There were about 50,000 commercial cyclists in New York in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, city transportation officials said. That figure has since soared, by some activists’ estimates, to about 80,000.

One reason is the surge in demand for food delivery, often through apps like Grubhub and DoorDash.

In October, more than 1,000 protesters joined a demonstration outside City Hall organized by a collective known as Los Deliveristas Unidos to call attention to the robberies and other poor working conditions, including low pay, a shortage of protective gear, and a lack of places to rest or use a restroom, Guallpa said.

Carlina Rivera, a City Council member from Manhattan, said that delivery workers, who are considered essential, have risked not just their safety but also their health during the pandemic by exposing themselves to the virus each day. Many of the workers also face barriers to getting vaccinated, even though they recently became eligible, including lack of internet access to sign up for appointments and mistrust of the government.

“These are the people working day and night, and yet they have been left out of the larger conversation,” she said.

Even if the delivery workers muster the courage to report crimes to the police, many have trouble with the mental trauma that often follows a violent encounter, social workers said.

Perez-Saucedo said he remained haunted by being robbed at gunpoint. Since that day, he said, he watches his surroundings with heightened fear and only stops to deliver food after he’s sure no one has followed him.

He recalled that on the day he was robbed — October 13 — he received several text messages from colleagues warning him of the rise in robberies and attacks in the area where he was working. Watch for anyone following you, some messages said. Lock your bike if you walk away, others read.

By 9pm he had one last delivery to make in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He stopped at a red light and grew uneasy when he noticed two men riding a motorbike a few feet behind him.

When the men sped past him, he said, he chuckled and felt silly for having been afraid. Minutes later, though, they accosted him. One of the men lifted his shirt and pointed at a gun tucked behind his belt. The other abruptly tore the bike from his hands.

“I was told, give them what they want or they’ll kill you,” he said.

Perez-Saucedo, his family’s breadwinner, said he barely makes enough money to cover rent for his two-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, food, and diapers for his child. After he was robbed, he borrowed $200 from a sister-in-law and drained his savings to buy a $900 electric motorcycle. “It runs a lot slower than my old bike,” he said. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Perez-Saucedo reported the robbery, but the police have not made any arrests. The police solved about 36 percent of the electronic bike robberies last year, according to departmental data. Harrison said the widespread use of masks during the pandemic has made it harder to identify people caught on video robbing workers.

He added that he’d like to see “designated, well-lit areas” throughout the city where delivery workers can safely deliver goods within sight of police officers and the public.