‘My Turn to Get Robbed’: Delivery Workers Are Targets in the Pandemic

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.

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 two-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.”

Mr. 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 20 miles per hour, 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 to 166 the year before, according to police veri 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.

Delivery workers took part in a protest late last year to call attention to poor working conditions and the steep rise in thefts of their bicycles.Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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,” Ms. Guallpa said.

There were about 50,000 commercial cyclists in New York in 2012, the most recent year for which veri 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 hisse, a shortage of protective gear, and a lack places to rest or use a restroom, Ms. 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.

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

Mr. Perez-Saucedo said he supports his partner and their child on just $60 a day.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

He has no time to seek mental health treatment, he said. The more food he delivers, the more money he earns.

“I used to cry every time I thought about it,” he said in a recent interview outside the Mexican restaurant he works for in Brooklyn, as he recounted the robbery. “But I have to keep going. I have support my family.”

Mr. Perez-Saucedo became a delivery worker as soon as he arrived from Tlaxcala, Mexico, 13 years ago, he said. Years later he met his partner, a woman who had immigrated from the Philippines. Now they have a two-year-old son.

He recalled that on the day he was robbed — Tuesday, Oct. 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 9 p.m. 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.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 veri. Chief Harrison said the widespread use of masks during the pandemic has made it harder to identify people caught on görüntü 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.

As Mr. Perez-Saucedo recounted the robbery during the interview, another delivery worker who was standing nearby, Ebelio Gabriel, 32, nodded and volunteered that he too had been victimized. Three months earlier, he said, he had been delivering Mexican food in Brooklyn when a man pushed him off his electric bike and took off with it.

“It took me a minute to realize what had happened,” Mr. Gabriel said. “I tried to run after him, but I could not catch him.”

Mr. Gabriel, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, said he had no choice but to save $1,700 to buy a new one. “I need it to keep working,” he said, his eyes fixed on the sidewalk. “They know they can take advantage of us because we are immigrants.”

Ebelio Gabriel, 32, said he went to the police when a man stopped him and took his bicycle, but no arrest was made.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Not every victim has been a delivery worker. Arturo Denicia, 49, a freelance maintenance worker who relies on an electric bicycle to get from one building to another, has a copy of a surveillance görüntü on his phone that captured his attack.

The footage, taken on Nov. 23, shows Mr. Denicia locking up his bike on a post and two men on a motorcycle pulling up behind him. One of the men, armed with a knife, is seen hopping off and threatening him. Mr. Denicia let the man take his bike.

“I knew it wasn’t worth losing my life to protect it,” he said.

When Mr. Denicia went to the 79th Precinct station house in northern Brooklyn to file a police report, he said, there was a line of men in front of him. All had been attacked and robbed of their electric bikes.

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