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Canary and Postmates: Chartering a path toward financial security for all workers



Canary has partnered with Postmates, a platform that connects customers with local couriers who can deliver nearly anything from your favorite restaurant or retailer in minutes. Together, our companies have launched the Postmates Grant Circle, powered by Canary, to provide critical aid to couriers experiencing financial hardship. Canary CEO Rachel Schneider and Vikrum Aiyer, the Vice President of Global Public Policy & Strategic Communications at Postmates, spoke recently about why it’s important to experiment with new benefits for workers.



Rachel Schneider: Let’s start with the big questions, Vikrum, why offer emergency cash grants at all? And, why do it for a workforce that is often part-time, often working quite independently?





Vikrum Aiyer: We’re trying to make sure a safety net that was built shortly after World War II can be modernized for today’s workforce. For a really long time, our safety net has been tied to just one notion of work--one where you work 10, 15, or 20 years at a single job, work hard, and hopefully leave your kids a little better off than how you started. Millennials, GenZ’ers and generations to come will work more jobs in a single decade than our grandparents may have over their lifetime. So at Postmates we’re committed to working with policymakers, academics, and most importantly, our couriers, to understand what it means to have modern worker protections for all types of work, and befitting of a 21st century economy. 

And as we’ve spent a lot of time focused on studying the needs of 300,000 gig economy workers across the country, we’ve learned two basic things.


First, there’s a need to expand traditional benefits to self-employed workers. Health care, retirement savings and injury protections should be unlocked for self-employed or gig economy workers. Laws like the Affordable Care Act are a good start at providing some portability. Postmates couriers (89% of whom work 3-5 hours a week through the app) tell us that they’d like to continue to work flexibly, and at the same time, they also would like to access more elements of a safety net that has long been tied to working exclusively at a specific workplace. 


The second thing we’ve learned from workers is that there are often moments of unexpected hardship that can be part of any worker’s life -- an unexpected medical bill or being short on rent -- which all too often can tip someone into a cycle of debt and damage their mental health, making it tough to pick themselves back up. And without a friend or family member to spare you some cash, predatory loans with high interest rates become all too appealing. 


We wanted to figure out how we could offer emergency cash relief to our Postmates who run into those hard times--through zero interest, zero repayment relief grants. We were inspired by a 2019 design sprint at The Workers Lab and the fire power of the team at Canary. Offering a grant fund now is a perfect way for us to think more intelligently about the types of benefits and support workers need in the modern economy; as well as a way to be responsive to what we hear registers as a core need from our fleet of Postmates couriers. 



Schneider: For readers who may not have followed this, The Workers Lab led a team that delivered emergency cash grants to 400 people as an experiment in portable benefits well before the pandemic inspired an explosion of interest in cash transfer programs. I was an advisor to the project, so I’m biased here, but one of the things that was so compelling about the project was that it chose to be agnostic about classification issues. Of course, the questions of how to classify workers matter, but in that project, we set those questions aside and said, ok, let’s experiment with a new type of benefit. Let’s go understand what workers need and see if we can provide that in a way that is independent of whether someone is a W-2 or 1099 worker. 


I know you’ve done a lot at Postmates to understand the needs of the Postmates fleet and incorporate their voice into your benefits decisions. What does that look like at Postmates?



Aiyer: When Postmates pioneered on-demand work there was an incredibly celebratory aspect to it. Other than in New York City, you couldn’t get a burrito delivered to you at your office at 2pm or cough medicine delivered to you if you had a sick kid at home at 2am. Postmates treated every brick and mortar as if it were a warehouse, giving local businesses a way to compete with big box e-commerce that was creating massive headwinds for local businesses. All of a sudden a local bakery or taqueria was selling to people on the other side of town who might never have known about them otherwise.


And, on the courier’s side, if you were trying to earn more money, you could pick up a few items on your way somewhere, and drop them off to earn a few extra dollars in a way that worked for your schedule. At the time, it wasn’t just gig platforms that were using this type of flexible work. 


The Obama Administration had commissioned the Department of Labor in 2016 to update its regular survey of contingent workers to query how many workers around the country were indeed using apps as a means to supplement income. And in 2017 we started sitting down with on-demand couriers, because it was clear that the types of workers who were looking at these platforms were growingly increasingly vast and varied. It ranged from parents delivering to shore up extra dollars for summer schools and students earning in between classes, to immigrant workers and formerly incarcerated workers who felt on-demand work was more accessible to their backgrounds than other jobs. 


As we grew, and as we started to see all of this new analysis about how automation and disaggregated work were changing our economy and the safety net, we started to think that we had a responsibility to understand how to actually lift up the economic opportunity of the workers on our platform. We didn’t think we should have the transaction between Postmates and those workers simply end at the time that we pay them out for a delivery. 


As we grew, and as we started to see all of this new analysis about how automation and disaggregated work were changing our economy and the safety net, we started to think that we had a responsibility to understand how to actually lift up the economic opportunity of the workers on our platform. We didn’t think we should have the transaction between Postmates and those workers simply end at the time that we pay them out for a delivery. 

So we needed to prioritize the voice of workers. In 2018, we created a Fleet Advisory Board of couriers who weigh in on business decisions we make, policies we fight for, and engineering decisions we code into the platform -- even stuff like “why is the button on this side of the phone, when I’m carrying bags and soda that cover it up? It would be easier if you put it there.” Bringing in the voice of the worker through an advisory board was an industry-first, and it’s an important aspect of our approach. So we started to critically analyze how often workers used the platforms, why, and what they sought to do in life even well outside of these apps. That started to inform a blueprint in our eyes of unique ways to build a model of benefits to inform upward mobility through actions.


Bringing in the voice of the worker through an advisory board was an industry-first, and it’s an important aspect of our approach. So we started to critically analyze how often workers used the platforms, why, and what they sought to do in life even well outside of these apps. That started to inform a blueprint in our eyes of unique ways to build a model of benefits to inform upward mobility through actions.

We learned that 65% of our Postmates report having healthcare insurance, whether through another job or a partner or a parent. We learned that about 40% of Postmates couriers were looking for full-time work, but only 20% have a college degree. These were important insights. They helped us expand from conversations with policymakers about healthcare to thinking about a range of benefits, such as: accident insurance; education and career-upskilling-as-a-benefit; mental health resources; long term savings; and emergency cash relief. And while we advocated for legislative reforms to unlock some of these benefits for the self-employed, there were steps we took as a company to ensure gig-workers could access career training, job placement resources, telemedicine, mental health resources, family care and child care support, accident coverage, healthcare resources, and other steps intended to invest in their economic mobility. 



Schneider: How did the pandemic affect your thinking about all of this? What did you hear from Postmates couriers in the Spring of 2020?


Aiyer: Even before the pandemic, for every person we talked to who told us they wanted to focus on their career mobility, we also heard about devastating hardship events that the Grant Circle will speak to. We had already learned that two-week pay periods weren’t actually useful for people who needed cash on demand now. So we launched “Instant Pay”. Being able to instantly deposit money doesn’t sound that difficult, but it was a huge evolution. It created a sort of new cash relief where people could download an app, make a delivery, and get paid out in 55 minutes.


During the COVID pandemic, we thought that a lot of workers on the platform were being bombarded with a terrible trade-off: with schools shut down, they could either stay home to care for their family, or go out and earn an income, but some felt frustrated that they couldn’t do both. We created a fleet relief fund where workers who were on the platform could apply – no interest, no strings attached, no payback – for childcare and family care relief..



Schneider: At Canary, we often hear people say something like, “emergency cash grants seem useful, but why do that instead of …[fill in the blank]?” We’re happy to answer that because we think there is so much value to offering people a flexible benefit that they can use how they most need to in a time of hardship. But, we also think this is not an either/or. It’s about defining a portfolio of new types of benefits for workers that are responsive to the real and immediate, as well as longer term, financial challenges that working people face. 


It makes me think back to another critical part of The Workers Lab experiment with cash grants. The founder of The Workers Lab, Carmen Rojas, urged us to approach the experiment from a place of abundance. We avoided a scarcity mindset where we might have gotten stuck in questions of doability and cost. Instead, we thought “what do people actually need?” We answered that question with an open mind, built it and gathered data about it. Since it helped people, we moved forward with making the case for adoption and expansion.  We’re carrying that mindset and approach forward in our work at Canary. 



Aiyer: The experiences that we think the Grant Circle will speak to for Postmates’ workers, are experiences that you don’t have to be a gig worker to confront. All Americans have confronted these kinds of challenges and will continue to confront them. By sharing those stories, we can help move the ball forward in developing the safety net for how work works today.



Schneider: Agreed! Contributing to the evolution of the 21st century social safety net is core to our vision at Canary. We’re so glad to be able to do that in partnership with Postmates.



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Thank you to Vikrum Aiyer and the whole Postmates team for their commitment to providing benefits and critical support for their gig-economy workers. We would love to have you join us in working collaboratively to improve workplace financial security. We invite you to explore our website and get in touch.




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