The lonely road of a local contract worker
When I retired a few years ago my wife and I moved to Olympia so that I could finish my college degree. I had hoped to find some sort of employment after college. Unfortunately that didn’t work as planned so I took a job as a contractor delivering newspapers to help make ends meet. That proved to be an interesting experience.
The Uber or Gig Economy, as contracting is being called, has been with us for some time and in the news recently. Many different fields are represented. Some workers are doctors or software designers. Others are janitors and landscape workers.
I signed a contract when I went to work for this company that spelled out my responsibilities. If I had had some legal advice of my own I might have had second thoughts about taking the job but at the time that was not really an issue since I had no plans on being there more than about eighteen months. I had delivered newspapers when I was a kid and I had spent considerable time in retail so I knew how to treat a customer. I wanted to pay off a couple of bills, put a few dollars away and this job would have done that. For the most part I was on my own. I had no one looking over my shoulder. If I made a mistake I fixed it. In some instances I was charged three dollars for an error but for the most part I took care of my business without many problems.
To some two-hundred customers I delivered six papers, a local one and two others from in the state as well as the USA Today, Investor’s Business Daily, and the New York Times. It was a fairly simple job one where I showed up at 1 a.m., picked up the papers as they came off the truck, inserted the comics and ads which was done daily except on Mondays. For some reason Mondays were the only days the comics were inserted as the papers were printed. The plastic bags the papers come in are purchased by the carriers and many of us inserted the papers in the bags before we left the warehouse. I was told that the company once paid for the bags and rubber bands but shifted the costs to the carriers a few years ago.
If there was a sports event on Sunday we could plan on spending more time waiting for the Monday papers to arrive. Add to that three hours a week at home updating my route list. For this I earned about a thousand dollars a month or about six to seven dollars an hour. From that I then took out my gas and other expenses which dropped my income. The time spent on the job varied but the work was about 30 to 35 hours a week.
On my first route I was given a monthly gas allowance. On the second one with just a few less miles I didn’t receive gas allowance. I was fortunate in that the routes I ran during the time I was working there generally were about 45 miles. Some people had routes that were eighty or more miles and one man told me he drove over 120 miles a night.
The first day or two on the job I rode with the carrier I was going to replace at my own expense. The third day I drove and she received no pay. From then on the route was my responsibility and it then took me a couple of weeks to get it down so that I could drive it without wondering if I had delivered to all of my customers. This was my first route with the company and I didn’t know what really to expect from them in terms of assistance but the job was not complicated. Even though the pay was low I would be able to pay off some of our bills and there was no one leaning over my shoulder criticizing my work.
Other carriers told me that according to state law the route supervisors are not allowed to tell you what to do and they also are not allowed to provide much in the way of advice or explain any best practices. In my case the first route I ran was easy. The woman I took it over from handed me a well maintained route map of customers that showed me the best way to run the route. On the second route the map I was given to work from was three years old. Fortunately I did get an alphabetical customer list. I was then left with the task of matching the names up with the list that showed which order the streets were in and then place the customers in order of their address.
The weather complicated things. I dealt with downed trees blocking the road on a couple of nights. I also had to contend with elk, deer, lots of raccoons a few dogs and even one bear. All made life interesting. Then there were the drivers whom I will assume were drunk. Two nights in a row I dodged cars that ran stops signs. There was the night I had to pull into a driveway to avoid a pickup truck. I heard him before I saw him come around the curve and I was lucky that I did hear him. He was in my lane coming at me at about 60 mph.
There were the occasional accidents, ambulances and damage done by those who decided that running over mail boxes late at night and knocking over every trash can they could see was a fun time.
My wife who doesn’t drive because of a disability rode with me sometimes. That was mainly to give her something to do but I also felt safer with her in the car. I didn’t like of the idea of her being left overnight in the apartment by herself. Shortly after I started she had a relapse and had to stay home instead of riding along with me. A few months after I started the opportunity for a route closer to where we lived became available. I asked for a transfer since I felt it might be better for me to be closer to home in the event that she might need me in an emergency. The route supervisor that I was working for at the time agreed but also asked me to take on another route as well. I had my doubts because of the time involved but agreed to give the two routes a try.
It didn’t take me two weeks to realize that combining the two routes wasn’t going to work. Being new to both routes ended up putting me late getting done on the second one and I ended up with too many complaints. I was the one running the routes and had agreed to give it a try but somewhere along the line management should have had a better idea as to how long it took to do both especially when I was new to both of them. In the previous months I had been told by another carrier that it generally took three to four weeks to get a route down so that you could get done in time. As a result of being late I was charged three dollars for each complaint which came out of my paycheck. The fact that I was new to both routes didn’t seem to register with management and my effort to appeal the penalty fell on deaf ears. Part of the reason I had no luck in reducing the charges might have had something to do with the fact that the route supervisor who had started me on the two routes was dismissed a few days after I started on the second route.
I walked into the office one morning and asked to be relieved of the second route. In response another of the supervisors commented that he didn’t think it was going to work out in the first place. Common sense had gone out the door but I still had to pay the financial penalty for the late papers on the second route.
A few days after I had turned the second route over to someone else I received a call from a woman saying that she had not received her television guide and needed one that day. I explained that I was no longer the carrier but she insisted. I called the supervisor who told me he was well out of the area and he then asked if I could deliver the copy. I agreed to do so and drove it over to her but received no compensation from management. Maybe I should have complained but at least I didn’t have that problem to deal with so I shut up and let it go.
Theft was not much of a problem but on one section of my route someone was helping themselves to the papers but the problem was easily fixed. This section was the first part of the route and I just changed it and made it the last section I delivered. My wife was now riding with me again so I gave her a copy of the route list and asked her to check off the customers as we delivered them and when that was done I was fairly certain we had delivered to everyone especially when the inventory came out at the end of the day right on the money. I sent an email and notified the office of the theft problem but was still charged for it as if it was my fault. Once again I was ignored.
The theft problem happened in the fall but with the Thanksgiving season coming on and the amount of extra time it would take some days to get done as the weather changed I put the theft issue behind me.
Most of the carriers that I worked with gave out Christmas cards and they suggested I do the same. I was real happy with the response from my customers and the extra money that I received went towards paying down one of our bills. This meant I could reach my goal ahead of time.
I was getting close to finishing my first year with the job when I stepped out of the car at 4:15 one morning to toss a paper over a gate and I slipped or mistepped and went down like a brick and broke my hip. I was just about at the end of the route and if my wife hadn’t been there to go for help I would have been on the ground for some time until sunrise and someone noticed me. One of the residents came out at the early hour to help thanks to my wife’s efforts and called 911 who sent an emergency team. I just remember thinking that if I could get back in the car I would finish the route and then go to the hospital. Instead I went to the hospital in an ambulance where I went into surgery and spent the next two days somewhat sedated. I found out later that my wife finished the route with one of the supervisors. A few days after the accident one of my fellow workers came by to see me and informed me that the company had found someone to take my place which I understood since I had my doubts that I would be up and about any time soon.
This experience confirmed a few things for me and it also showed me society will have some problems as this business model grows.
I went into the hospital on February 9th and on the 23rd I experienced some complications. On April the 3rd I was released. A couple of days later I called the distribution office and asked for my check from February. Since I had worked about a third of the month I thought I might have $200 to $300 coming. Instead I was informed I was owed nothing because mistakes made by my replacement had eaten up my income. Unfortunately I didn’t have my thinking cap on straight when I was in the hospital since I was sedated for the first couple of days and hadn’t made any arrangements for a replacement. I was also told that since I had not given a thirty day notice or found a replacement I violated the contract and was lucky the company wasn’t taking me to court to recover damages. I wonder what they would have done if I had died out there while delivering papers. Or what they would have done if a woman carrier had been sexually assaulted?
When I was offered this job I was handed a contract to sign that had been written by a lawyer. One would think for my own protection I should have hired a lawyer to read it for me. To do so would have cost a good deal which I could not easily afford. I can assure you that a number of the carriers were in financial difficulties and for them to afford a lawyer would have been nearly impossible. Because of this the company was in a much better position legally than any of them.
Pay was a big issue with the carriers. Some months into my first year, there was an increase in the price of the paper. As I recall none of that increase was passed down to the carriers and many spoke about this slight. For many carriers this was important because they were barely scraping by. Some carriers were making less than minimum wage and holding their cars together with duct tape and wire it seemed. One question led to another and some of the carriers were wondering out loud if they were getting all of their tips since the customers paid the office and the carriers had no idea what the tips actually were.
Then there were some simple things that were annoying such as the lack of regularly cleaned restrooms or a drinking fountain. Bottled water was brought in for the supervisors but nothing for the carriers as far as I know. There was a soft drink machine but many of us brought our own bottled water. When a new carrier took over a route they were expected to handout a flier with their contact information on it. I saw a couple of carriers who had no idea how they were to make the flier or where to make them. One young man didn’t have the tools to make the copies or the money to afford to have a shop run them off for him so the customers had no idea that a new person was on the route. Apparently that is still a problem because after being gone a year I get calls from customers who have not received a paper. My last call from a customer who did not receive a paper came on the morning of March 13th of this year which was over a year after I had been terminated by the company.
Fortunately family and friends helped us get through the medical problems.
Michael Wilson is a resident of Thurston County.