Miami’s mostly-Latino delivery workers worry about coronavirus surge

MIAMI — Noel Guillermo, 47, a delivery worker for Instacart, is not happy with what he’s seeing as Florida grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases.

“I’m extremely worried about the exposure,” he said. “All the grocery stores are super tightly packed. There are maybe 70 other people in there. And here in Miami, there are tons of people not taking it very seriously — so many people just disregarding the rules and not wearing their masks or gloves.”

“Even when I go to restaurants, there are a lot of people not wearing protective equipment,” Guillermo said.

Florida is one of several states seeing a significant spike in COVID-19 cases. After several days of record-shattering new case numbers, the state’s total number of cases as of Monday is over 146,000, according to the Florida Department of Health.

As the demand for deliveries has surged, a largely Latino and immigrant workforce has been working on the pandemic’s front lines providing meals, groceries and medicine to people at home.

Guillermo, who made a living driving for Uber before the pandemic hit, said he felt he had to choose between forfeiting his income or risking his health for work. With millions out of work from pandemic lockdowns and Florida’s unemployment rate at 14.5 percent, many feel they have no choice.

“Normally, I’m a preschool teacher, and I am a babysitter throughout the summers,” Carolina Calderon, 53, said. “But in the pandemic, there aren’t any options for getting a job. So I figured I needed to drive for Uber Eats.”

“But I’m terrified of the risk,” she said.

Nestor Guevara, 46, drives for Uber and Amazon Fresh.

“If you want to make a living, you have to go to work, no matter what,” he said. “This is the way this country works.”

“These big companies that we work for could do more for drivers like us,” Guevara added. “I work every single day for them. I never stop. I wish they would do more to help us.”

Nestor Guevara’s trunk full of packages to deliver from Amazon and Whole Foods.Julia Logue / for NBC News

Timothy Carter, a public relations manager at Amazon, noted the company’s efforts to keep its employees safe.

“We’re investing over $800 million in the first half of this year on safety measures like temperature checks, masks, enhanced cleaning, gloves and testing, to name a few,” he said.

In an email to NBC News, Carly DeBeikes, a representative from Uber’s Safety Communications Department, said that the company has been supplying drivers with masks and cleaning supplies since April. “Our focus has been cities with the highest need, giving supplies to the most active drivers,” she said.

Guevara’s cousin, Eleazar Guevara, said he contracted COVID-19 early on. “Since I was a contractor for Amazon Fresh and was infected, I applied to their relief program and got $2,000. That helped — but it wasn’t the same as working for a month — for 31 days, I could not leave my room.”

Eleazar, 40, left Venezuela two years ago after a 17-year career in business and politics. He sought asylum, claiming government persecution, and it was approved; he’s now in the process of applying for permanent residency.

“The arc of it all has been a bit difficult,” he said. “I came as an immigrant with professional training and experience; it’s difficult to come with all this knowledge and not be able to use it.” He’s had to socially distance from his family to keep them healthy, which he says is very hard.

His story is a common one among delivery workers in Miami, who draw on a largely immigrant workforce.

Increased competition

As people in other industries lose their jobs, delivery workers face increased competition from a surging number of drivers.

“All the restaurants, studios, fitness places, everything closed their doors, and all of these people needed to make money, too,” said Nestor. “So even though there was a massive ramp-up in demand [for delivery], there was a massive ramp-up of drivers.”

“In the last few weeks, so many people have joined the platform that it’s almost impossible to get deliveries,” said Guillermo. “Instacart started off paying really well, but now it’s totally dependent on the amount of jobs you can find.”

Despite the increased competition, Eleazar said the silver lining is that there are grateful customers who are saying thanks with their pocketbooks.

“On an average delivery job, I’m earning double than I did before because people are paying so much in tips,” he said. “People are really putting in the effort, especially now. I think they realize the risk we are putting ourselves into.”

Though delivery workers are apprehensive as the state sees the coronavirus cases rise, Eleazar says he also feels a sense of pride in what he does.

“We are a part of the front lines — we help keep the restaurants in business, we help keep sales high in grocery stores, and we help keep people in their houses where they feel safe,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I count the amount of deliveries I did, and I think – ‘OK, I delivered 45 packages to 45 houses today. I kept 45 people feeling safe.’ And I feel really good about that.”

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