When Leah Hollinsworth was hurt on the job she didn’t get any time off to recover.
“I remember it because it was one of those cold grey November rainy days when you have that Guns N’ Roses song in your head,” she recalls of the accident almost 15 years later.
Hollinsworth was coming down Blue Jays Way on her bike with a delivery when a car turned left in front of her, and she crashed into its rear-view mirror. She broke three ribs.
“I was a single mother the entire time I was a bike messenger so taking that time off work wasn’t an option for me,” she said, “I just couldn’t walk away.”
Her employer let her make some adjustments, walking to deliveries around the downtown core instead of cycling because that hurt too much. But she knows not everyone is so lucky.
It’s one of the reasons why the now 39-year-old is devoted to the charity Bicycle Messenger Emergency Fund.
The global non-profit donates money to bike couriers injured at work, who are mostly independent contractors without health benefits, disability leave or even sick days.
The transient nature of the industry makes it hard to pin down exact numbers of such couriers in Toronto.
But the rise of food service delivery apps means more independent contractors and a shift toward the gig economy that leaves many workers without the safety net of a traditional employer, despite the risks that come along with cycling through Toronto’s often treacherous streets.
Most courier companies and app-based delivery services don’t pay into the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board for messengers because they classify them as independent contractors, Hollinsworth said.
“Other jobs that are dangerous generally have some sort of pay that goes along with that,” says Toronto-based Hollinsworth, one of two volunteers who run the non-profit, which was started in 2004-2005.
The wages of a bike courier vary widely from city to city depending on how many shifts they work, but she said the average is about $80-100 a day — wages that were decent in the ’90s but have stayed stubbornly low with inflation.
“Most messengers are pretty hand to mouth, so the idea of not having two or three paycheques in a row is pretty devastating,” she added.
“If you get hurt on the job oftentimes that meant not only were you out of work but you could potentially lose your job indefinitely.”
The fund takes personal and corporate donations. But Torontonians contribute the lion’s share of the funding through an annual May Day bike race event, which has raised more than $25,000 over the years.
To apply for a $500 (U.S.) grant, bike couriers need to be working full time (more than three shifts a week, according to Hollinsworth), be injured on the job and unable to work using their bike for at least a month. The money, which is the same amount for everyone, is meant to help with costs of food and medicine.
The funds made a difference for Emily Glos, 32, a former bike messenger who had to stop work in 2010 after she was rear-ended by a car and broke her arm.
“It was pretty isolating,” she said of the incident, over the phone from Sayulita, Mexico, where she is now living.
Glos couldn’t ride with her injured arm, and turned to family for financial help. She also applied to the emergency fund, which gave her money to help cover costs for food. It also made her feel less alone.
“I think it’s so wonderful that it’s there to help financially. But it also adds a sense of community, knowing that there’s something you can dip into,” she said.
“That aspect of it is really beautiful.”
After she recovered, Glos helped start the May Day races as a way to give back. The fundraiser has grown over the years and allowed the charity to contribute $500, up from the $300 she had received, toward bike messengers who need help getting back on their feet.
A few companies are starting to recognize the gap that those two-wheeled messengers can face when they fall or are hit by a car.
At Foodora Canada, one of the most visible food delivery services in the city with its bike couriers bringing Thai food, pizza and burgers in bright pink containers through snow, sleet and rain, the company pays into WSIB (or provincial equivalents) on the riders’ behalf, said managing director David Albert in an email.
“This covers them for loss of earnings in the event they get injured while working. We feel it’s important to protect our riders to the best of our ability while they are on the job,” he said.
Facing court challenges in the European Union on its relationship with its drivers, Uber announced in spring 2018 it would partner with insurance company AXA to provide insurance coverage there — including sickness, injury and maternity and paternity payments.
But nothing like that exists for its drivers and couriers in Canada.
Xavier Van Chau, spokesperson for Uber Canada, wrote in an email they are “currently in active discussions to see how we can further support coverage for our delivery partners,” in Canada “and look forward to share more on this when possible.”
Andrew Cash, co-founder of The Urban Worker Project, an organization that fights for the rights of precarious workers, said he applauds the Bicycle Messenger Emergency Fund, but its existence highlights a growing underlying problem.
“It’s a good example of how the economy is continually loading all the responsibilities and all the risk on to individual workers themselves,” he says.
“Many of them would completely fall through any kind of safety net.”
The bike courier system is also set up so that it incentivizes people to bike faster, make more deliveries and more money, which can put them at risk for collisions, he said. And the rise of delivery apps has meant that many restaurants now go that route instead of paying their own employees.
A 2018 report from the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario research group, a collaboration between university researchers and community groups like the United Way Greater Toronto, found just over 37 per cent of workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area have some degree of precarious employment.
That’s defined as part-time, temporary and contract, self-employed or full-time employment without benefits, regular hours or a guarantee of at least one year’s work.
“This is a brave new world,” Cash said, where the “matrix of rules and regulations” that governed employer-employee relations has been upended.
As that world shifts, we need to start thinking about new tools to adjust to the new reality, he said. For example, extending short- and long-term disability benefits to independent contractors.
“So that fewer are a bike accident away from the financial abyss.”
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11