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Amid lithium battery fires, NYC gig workers need assistance getting access to secure e-bikes.

Long before the invention of e-bikes and food delivery apps, it was common to see bike delivery employees dashing through the streets of New York while wearing oven mitts that were duct taped to their handlebars and carrying insulated pizza delivery bags strapped above the rear wheel.

It’s common to take delivery employees for granted because they are so essential to the environment. But if residents couldn’t receive a delivery of chicken wings and pork fried rice at three in the morning, New York wouldn’t be the city that never sleeps.

Delivery personnel must pick up and serve meals considerably more quickly as a result of rising living expenses and a rise in demand for food delivery through services like Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Relay. Due to the popularity and accessibility of electric bikes, scooters, and mopeds, which make delivery workers’ jobs simpler, there is more pressure now.

The negative? Lithium-ion battery-related fires are destroying the metropolis. And the chance of dying in such fires is rising among deliveristas, the gig labor force primarily made up of immigrant men from Spanish-speaking nations.

As if bike theft, assaults, negligent NYC drivers, rain, snow, hail, sleet, heat, and limited access to public restrooms weren’t enough to worry about.

According to data from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), the number of lithium-ion fires brought on by micromobility vehicles in New York City increased by more than twofold year between 2020 and 2022. Up from 104 fires, 79 injuries, four deaths, and 44 fires, 23 injuries, and zero deaths in 2020, there were 220 fires in 2022 that caused 147 injuries and six fatalities. As of July 3, 2023, there have been 114 investigations concerning lithium-ion fires, 74 injuries, and 13 fatalities.

80 of the 2023 fires happened in structures such homes, buildings, and offices, though the FDNY doesn’t split down statistics by the types of equipment that started the fires.

Lithium-ion battery fires investigated by the Bureau of Fire.Fire Department of New York, image credit

Naturally, not every fire can be connected to the on-demand delivery sector. An e-bike shop was the origin of a recent deadly fire in Chinatown that claimed the lives of four people. But compared to the typical e-bike user, deliveristas appear to be more at risk.

Deliveristas are more likely to purchase inexpensive, non-certified e-bikes and batteries because gig employment is low-paying. Additionally, they spend many hours each day riding bikes throughout the city, which increases wear and tear and increases the risk of battery damage.

In addition, many deliveristas don’t have access to safe, secure charging facilities and may wind up charging their vehicles in their apartments, sometimes overnight, which can cause overheating.

Mayor Eric Adams recently unveiled an action plan to tackle lithium-ion battery fires, which calls for supporting hubs for battery storage and charging, promoting incentives and refunds for purchasing better bikes, and bringing attention to the problem. The first of these two significant legislation, which just recently took effect, forbids the assembly or reconditioning of lithium-ion batteries using cells taken out of used storage batteries. The second, which takes effect in September, prohibits the sale, lease, or rental of batteries and micromobility devices that don’t adhere to industry safety requirements.

Gig workers argue that the app companies should be held accountable for assisting them as they struggle to obtain authorized automobiles.

A delivery worker from New York City named William Medina told TechCrunch that he believes “these multimillion-dollar delivery companies…should implement some support to workers to ensure they’re buying safe batteries.”

The people who brought food and medicine to people during the pandemic, as well as those who kept NYC operating as a 24-hour economy, were deliveristas, according to Medina. “They don’t assume any responsibility when there are fires, accidents, or deaths,” Medina added.

According to employees TechCrunch talked with, a certified e-bike used by delivery personnel costs on average $1,500. A worker could also spend an additional $450 to $550 yearly on maintenance, charging, insurance, and battery replacements.

Before expenditures and taxes, Medina estimates that a normal six-day work week in NYC can earn between $700 and $800.

In contrast to employment, gig workers are categorized as independent contractors. As a result, to avoid straying into the realm of employers, app firms are careful about how much and in what manner they assist their employees.

Putting the burden of business expenses on “the workers who create the most value for the firms,” according to Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, is one strategy to escape employer liability.

As Dubal explained in an email to TechCrunch, “the companies are concerned that if they provide charging stations or safe batteries, this will not only increase their labor costs but will also be indicative of their status as employers — providing the instrumentalities of work.” This is yet another instance of how low-income, racial minority workers unfairly bear the risks of the task in order to receive a wage that is below the minimum wage.

What Grubhub, DoorDash, and UberEats are doing to assist

a screenshot of an email from DoorDash to Dashers that included advice on e-bike fire safety. Image Source: DoorDash

For the FDNY Foundation’s initiatives to expand fire safety messaging, education, and outreach, DoorDash and Uber each made a separate donation of $100,000. The Equitable Commute Project (ECP), which provides an e-bike trade-in scheme, is additionally supported by both businesses. Melinda Hanson, one of the ECP’s co-founders, claims that they each gave the group $200,000 in support.

Delivery employees can exchange their uncertified e-bike, e-scooter, or e-moped for a reduced Tern Quick Haul with two Bosch batteries as part of the trade-in program.

Although the Tern is a fantastic bike that is ideal for delivery, the idea might not be appealing to workers who would still be required to pay the bike’s price of $2,200 plus tax.

Even while that is a saving of roughly 40% off the bike’s suggested retail price, a deliverista’s budget is still not exactly met by that.

The issue is that decent e-bikes, even those that are on sale, must compete with sub-$100 bikes that deliveristas may purchase from China or on online marketplaces like Alibaba, which, according to workers who spoke to TechCrunch, are far more appropriate for someone with a pre-tax income of no more than $800 per week.

According to one Reddit user, “Realistically, is a delivery worker going to turn in their uncertified e-bike and pay $2,200+ tax for a certified one in the name of safety?”

In spite of this, ECP partners with Spring Bank to provide employees a low-cost, 12-month loan, even if they have no credit history, allowing them to purchase a bike from ECP with manageable monthly installments.

DoorDash told TechCrunch that in addition to promoting awareness, it frequently sends out advice on preventing battery fires. Links to further resources like advice on battery charging and storage as well as where to obtain rebates and incentives are also included on the company’s landing page for bike Dashers.

To assist Dashers in obtaining secure bikes, DoorDash also collaborates with the e-bike businesses Dirwin and Zoomo. In addition to providing a complimentary accessory package that includes a cell phone mount, water bottle holder, tire pump, and sunglasses, Dirwin gives 30% off the purchase of an e-bike, helmet, and front basket. That can be financed for about $33 a week, which works out to a total cost of about $1,600 for everything.

The “Boost” plan from Zoomo, which costs $199 per month for an e-bike membership, offers Dashers in NYC $100 off as a result of their connection with DoorDash.

This subscription includes use of any Zoomo e-bike, maintenance, theft protection, and a spare battery.

Zoomo and Uber are collaborating on a similar cooperation arrangement. Additionally, the businesses will collaborate on a trade-in program that will offer couriers with non-certified e-bikes “a significant monetary amount” toward a new e-bike when they trade it in. Uber informed TechCrunch that it intends to use donations from the FDNY, Zoomo, and ECP to invest nearly $1 million in its pilots.

Through its relationships with UberEats and DoorDash, Zoomo claims that thousands of couriers have signed up.

Currently, Joco, a docked, shared e-bike provider for gig workers, is conducting a six-month pilot with Grubhub to provide free use of its bikes to at least 500 gig delivery employees each month. The 1,000 bikes in Joco’s fleet are available at 55 stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Additionally, Joco, a rest area where employees can take breaks, use the restroom, charge their phones, and replace dead batteries with fully charged ones, was sponsored by Grubhub in midtown Manhattan.

The firms estimate that since the pilot began in mid-June, the hub has seen around 1,000 unique visitors; however, neither will reveal just how many riders have taken advantage of this offer of free e-bike use. Additionally, Grubhub remained mum on whether it intended to keep the trial running for longer than six months.

The business also disclosed to TechCrunch in April that it was working hard to build a battery recycling scheme to accept non-certified e-bikes, but it gave no further details on that project.

Relay, a nearby gig delivery service in NYC, declined to respond to TechCrunch’s inquiries on how it is assisting delivery workers.

What could gig businesses do more effectively?

The primary causes of battery fires in e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-mopeds are: inexpensive vehicles, batteries produced with low-quality manufacturing techniques and low-cost components, overcharging in crowded settings while other devices are charging, battery deterioration, and misuse.

All of these are typical among delivery workers, and the problem is made worse by the fact that everyone lives in close quarters in New York City, where a fire in one apartment swiftly spreads to the next.

In addition to the steps the city has taken to protect its workforce, advocates and employees believe gig economy businesses might be doing more to advance solutions.

Given that delivery employees are the foundation of these businesses, at the absolute least, they could be helped to avoid starting or perish in a lithium-induced fire if they aren’t going to receive fair working conditions.

To begin with, delivery companies might establish a standard for the e-bikes that their delivery personnel use, much to how Uber and Lyft have a standard for the vehicles that can be used for ride-hailing.

Additionally, Uber and Lyft contribute to the NYC Black Car Fund, which enables drivers to receive benefits including Workers’ Compensation.

A similar fund might be established by the city, restaurants, and delivery services to help workers get access to safe and affordable batteries.

Some employees told TechCrunch that since replacing batteries would be less expensive than financing full e-bikes, it would make sense for businesses and the government to sponsor a battery buy-back scheme. In reality, a bill to establish a program to provide new batteries for e-scooters and e-bikes at a reduced or even free price, or in exchange for used batteries, has been submitted to the NYC Council.

Better charging and storage infrastructure, such as locations where employees can store up their bicycles and charge them safely, may also be supported by Uber, Grubhub, and DoorDash.

Piloting battery switching services like those provided by Taiwan-based Gogoro and Berlin-based Swobbee provide an alternative.

Better compensation may also help alleviate the battery fire problem since employees will be able to afford higher-quality bikes, according to a study conducted by WXY Studio and ironically commissioned by Uber.

Ironically, Uber, DoorDash, and Grubhub are suing the city for requiring delivery workers to be paid a guaranteed minimum wage of $18 per hour, despite the fact that many labor advocates claim this amount isn’t even enough to cover basic expenditures.

For delivery personnel who buy e-bikes and other micromobility equipment that have received UL certification, gig businesses may also provide incentives.

Uber presently states that it will pay drivers $1 for each electric vehicle ride, thus the standard has already been established. Apps might also finance leases and rent-to-own programs, or lend money to delivery personnel.

They can also increase awareness. Businesses should take the initiative in educating deliveristas about the dangers, how to keep safe, where to acquire cheap, certified bikes, and what resources or legislation are available.

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