This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“So many people are scared, and I am too. But I need the money.”
That’s what Ashikur Rahman, a food delivery worker in New York City, told my colleagues Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura and Jeffrey E. Singer back in March as he cycled over the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan into Brooklyn for the third time in one day, carting five cases of beer.
Mr. Rahman is one of the countless delivery workers across the country who face the agonizing choice between forfeiting their income and risking their health to keep Americans fed. It’s a choice that implicates people on the receiving end, too: Should you feel guilty about using delivery services to get groceries or takeout? Here are some questions to consider before placing an order.
Is the alternative worse?
From a personal and economic perspective, the answer is probably yes:
Experts generally agree that delivery and curbside pickup are safer for a consumer than going into a store or restaurant, Joe Pinsker writes in The Atlantic. That’s because those options expose you to fewer people, and ideally none.
Most delivery workers would also prefer that people keep ordering, according to Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s essential for these workers to be able to survive,” she told Mr. Pinsker. “Our industry is definitely worried about people’s safety, including their own, but they’re also worried about survival and feeding their kids.”
But when it comes to the health of the person providing your food, the answer is less clear:
When you order delivery, you’re making yourself safer by transferring risk to someone else. Does that mean it’s selfish? Karen Stohr, a professor of moral philosophy at Georgetown University, argues that people with the luxury of staying home should consider “whether we are bearing our fair share of the collective risk or whether our comfort is coming at too high a price to others.”
But at the same time, forgoing delivery may just shift that price to grocery store workers, who also have a high risk of exposure. As Mr. Pinsker writes, you could be infected and not know it, so, “Even if you opt out of delivery and spare a courier another potentially risky trip, leaving home to get groceries yourself still heightens others’ risk.”
As an alternative to thinking in abstract terms of right and wrong, try thinking in terms of consequences for public health: Given the options you have for getting food, which will minimize the total risk for every person involved, including yourself? If the answer still isn’t clear, that’s OK: As Steven Benko, a professor of religious and ethical studies at Meredith College, told The Atlantic, “We’re being asked to think so much more socially than we’re ever, ever asked to think.”
How at risk are you?
Grocery delivery slots are in short supply in many places, so you should weigh your risk against others’, according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, who writes The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column. “Unless you’re older or have some underlying medical condition that raises your risks,” he says, “using a delivery service does indeed put you in competition with customers who have more reason to stay away from the store than you do.”
If you do go to the grocery store, take steps to protect yourself and others, like wearing a mask, shopping at less crowded times and limiting the frequency of your trips. And again, since grocery store workers are at high risk of exposure, try to go to stores that provide employees with proper protection. You can read The Times’s comprehensive grocery shopping guide here.
Where are you ordering from?
As a general rule, you should seek out delivery companies that offer their workers good benefits, Marc Gunther writes for GEN magazine. Many companies hire their workers as independent contractors, which generally means they don’t get (or can’t easily take) paid sick leave. That’s one reason workers at Instacart and Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, went on strike last week, in addition to what they said were inadequate measures from the companies to provide personal protective equipment, cleaning services and hazard pay.
Their concerns are a labor issue, but they’re also a public-health issue: A delivery or grocery worker who doesn’t have paid sick leave and gets infected may try to push through their illness, in the process spreading it to other people.
If you’re ordering takeout, some say you should pick up the phone and call the restaurant directly. As Helen Rosner writes in The New Yorker, third-party apps like Seamless and DoorDash charge high commissions — sometimes up to 30 percent — so ordering from the restaurant will help it stay in business. (If you, like me, are a millennial or Gen Z-er and have a minor phobia of phones calls, check out Ms. Rosner’s guide to calling on Twitter.)
On the other hand, abstaining from third-party apps hurts the people who work for them, Ms. Jayaraman told Wired. Like Instacart, most restaurant delivery apps treat their workers as independent contractors, so if you do use one, check what the company’s worker policies are: Some have set up relief funds to help cover employees’ coronavirus-related medical costs.
How are you repaying the person delivering your food?
You should tip more than you usually do, Kelsey Borresen suggests at HuffPost — ideally no less than 20 percent, and more if you can. And if you’re using an app, Aliya Chaudhry writes at The Verge, leave a good rating for the delivery person, since ratings affect how much work they get.
In addition to tipping, you should also try to practice good social distancing, Ms. Chaudhry writes. Tip digitally instead of with cash, and use your own pen if you have to sign anything. Wilfred Chan, a writer and food delivery worker in New York City, also suggests coordinating no-contact drop-offs with the person delivering your food, if possible:
But moving forward, people should think less about their individual choices than about why the system is failing delivery workers in the first place, Mr. Chan says. Whether customers decide to order now, in the future “we need their help in fighting for workers to get fair wages, hazard pay, insurance, sick leave, and the protection they need.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at email@example.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Are Democrats canceling #MeToo for Biden?
Beverly, 81, from California: “Maybe the ‘Believe Women’ movement should be renamed something like ‘Listen to Women’ because I don’t think that the intent of feminists is, or should be, to believe categorically anyone based solely on their gender. Women can also lie, exaggerate and have ulterior motives.”
Mike, 18, from Poland: “It’s just incredible to me how many safer alternatives to Joe there were. Bernie, Pete, Amy, Liz, Tulsi, Andrew, they all certainly had some episodes where they were unpleasant, sure, but nothing sexual at all. Meanwhile, there’s the Democratic establishment who say they side with women and yet which candidate do they push? The one with a history of being creepy around women (the weird touching of girls on camera for example), of course.”
John, 72, from California: “The Times’s editorial board suggestion that the D.N.C. investigate the allegations against Joe Biden is a poor idea. Any investigation should be conducted by persons who are completely independent of Mr. Biden and Ms. Reade.”