Independent bicycle messenger contractors get paid per delivery, employees by the hour or negotiated salary. Rather than properly pricing deliveries, messengers must deliver more so that they will take home more money. Traffic laws are regularly broken by riders to increase potential income, perpetuating the reputation of bicycle messengers as red light running, sidewalk riding menaces to society. While lawlessness is never company policy, a wink and a blind eye are given to reckless daredevils.
Frequent dangerous riding near motor vehicles on bad roads often results in serious injuries and in rare cases death. Low wages and expensive bicycle gear combined with expenses that should be paid by the employer leave messengers very little ability to pay for health insurance. Health insurance and Workman’s Compensation, while more of a necessity due to the nature of the job, are often neglected until after an accident. Exposure to harsh weather, the physical demands of cycling for several hours and encounters with motor vehicles combine to make it one of the most hazardous jobs in America.
Although the job will always be difficult, proper monetary compensation for the welfare of the workers can only occur when riders better negotiate with their companies or report abuses to the proper authorities. There is an SS-8 form available from the Internal Revenue Service, which asks questions to determine if a worker is an independent contractor or an employee of a company. If the I.R.S. determines that one is an employee, the company must pay a fine, the taxes on the properly classified employee and a percentage to the worker. Workers who file this form are immune to being fired, with the company liable for another lawsuit with such actions. Unfortunately, most bicycle couriers are afraid to challenge their employers fearing loss of a job.
While things currently seem bleak, FedEx ground workers are setting precedents across the country by successfully suing to get listed as employees. In California, the Internal Revenue Service has determined that FedEx owes $319 million for the year 2002 alone. In Massachusetts, lawsuits against FedEx have determined that misclassification deprives the state of revenue from deductions and taxes from workers’ salary. There are suits from workers in 36 other states being consolidated into one case. After all the appeals in court by FedEx are exhausted, their penalties will be the example and prevent other companies from committing the same fraud. Although the FedEx workers are driving motor vehicles rather than bicycles, the jobs are nearly identical.
Public exposure to huge financial judgments from abuses caused by this crisis will hopefully empower riders to more aggressively fight for their rights and better oversight by the authorities.
Veteran messenger since 1990
Former 10-year owner of Vespid Couriers in Philadelphia, PA
Currently living and working in New York City