The ethics of delivery

Is it better to cook and go shopping ourselves?

Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that quotes The Good Place.

I’m Melody Schreiber, a journalist and the editor of What We Didn’t Expect. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. I just like to ask questions and try to find the answers to them. And I have a really, really big family. (More on this in a minute.)

Today, we’re addressing a question from a reader: Is it ethical to order food and supplies right now?

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Is it better to stay in and order out?

One of the biggest strategies many of us have for staying home is ordering pretty much everything we need — from ordering takeout for dinner to groceries to books, medicine, and other supplies. How lucky we are to live in a world where so much is within reach.

But when we order, we are inevitably putting others in danger: the people who cook and deliver that food, stock and supply those groceries, and package and deliver those items to you.

Is it more or less ethical to just do all of this ourselves?

And, as one reader puts it, “how do we balance our desires to support small businesses in their time of need, with wanting to make sure we aren't encouraging people to work in unsafe conditions?”

Photo: George Tan

There’s a lot here to unpack, and there’s no easy answer.

As with many ethical questions, this reminds me of The Good Place. In our modern world, it is increasingly difficult to make choices about our consumption that don’t have knock-on effects for someone — often several someones — down the line.

During a pandemic, the ways our society and its supply chains are organized become even more magnified and fraught — because it really is safer for everyone to stay home as much as possible, and having people work in these times does expose them to potential risk.

In an ideal world — or possibly Europe? — people wouldn’t feel pressure to work at potentially dangerous jobs just to survive during a pandemic. Or, at least, they would be compensated well and they would have the assurance of quality, affordable health care for all.

But here in the United States, at least, not going to work is not an option. People still need jobs in order to continue eating and having places to live, especially since our government doesn't seem interested in paying long-term lost wages so all non-essential workers can stay home.

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Supporting workers and businesses

I still order from places that seem to treat workers well. For us, that's been grocery stores like Giant and Safeway, and big box stores like Target and Best Buy (although I’m always worried that there’s mistreatment in these places I haven’t yet seen; please, if you’ve seen or heard something, let me know).

Restaurants have been laying people off en masse; as long as the restaurants are safe and have a track record for treating their workers well, supporting them is wonderful. (And don't forget to tip!!!)

I'm also ordering directly from local farmers who won't be able to operate at farmers' markets anymore — I don't know how it is in your neck of the woods, but around here, some farmers even deliver.

I try very hard to avoid places where workers are mistreated and potentially opened up to more exposure. I want to send my money to places where workers are given extra wages and support right now.

I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I am saying all of this from a place of immense privilege. I’m not an essential worker; I can stay home and still work as much (or more) than before. I benefit in many ways from the system as it is set up.

What’s it like for these workers, though?

I posed this question to several very important people in my life who don’t have the luxury of staying home: my family. Several of my brothers and sisters continue to work or recently worked in jobs deemed essential.

Here’s what they said.

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Should we still be asking people to go to work right now?

“How would we eat if people didn't?” my sister Chelsea asked. Until recently, she worked at a diner where she was paid a server’s minimum wage — $2.24 an hour.

Despite the low wages, her former boss and the skeleton crew still working at the diner are “very grateful for the work,” she said, and so are delivery drivers for apps like Grubhub, Doordash, and UberEats.

However, she pointed out, some businesses are misusing their employees “terribly.” Lowe's, for instance, has been advertising spring sales, designed to increase non-essential shopping — and putting their employees’ health at risk. Other companies, from Amazon to Instacart, have seen workers’ strikes.

Keep an eye out for those who are putting their workers in danger, and try spending your money elsewhere.

And when you’re supporting local businesses, please, please, please remember to be patient and kind. Everyone who is still working right now is doing their best in a terrible situation.

My brother Steve, for instance, is the last employee, outside of management, working at a tire shop; all of his coworkers have been furloughed. He’s expecting to see a rise in business now that people have begun receiving their stimulus checks.

“It looks like we're going to get busy again now and I'll be the only one working in the shop,” he said. He’s expecting to lose his time off, since he’s the only one working.

For those of us who need services like these, it’s important to remember how hard everyone is working and the sacrifices they are making.

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And what about delivery?

“For everything you can, you should get delivery,” said my brother Dennis, a meat-cutter for a large bulk grocery chain. “In fact, in most cases you are paying a little more for another person to have a job.”

“I’d really prefer for my safety and everyone else’s if they all used the delivery services or pickup-and-go. Everyone who comes in contact with other people is in danger, and that danger is multiplied by how many people are around.”

But doesn't that put people — like those who work for Instacart — in danger?

Yes, it does. But if everyone ordered curbside pickup or delivery, Dennis said, it would dramatically reduce those risks.

“Let’s say ten people get the same Instacart shopper; that’s ten people who aren’t standing in line at the same time,” Dennis explained. “If more people are buying online, then less bodies in the store mean less danger for everyone.”

Plus, for many gig workers like Doordash and Grubhub delivery drivers, it’s really hard to get unemployment, Chelsea pointed out. The system sucks, but that doesn’t mean workers should be punished even more for it.

All of my brothers and sisters agreed that hazard pay and benefits — especially health insurance — would help workers feel safer every day. Ideally, they said, the extra costs would be supported by federal subsidies, so small businesses wouldn’t be put under further financial strain.

Supporting small businesses and restaurants won’t just help workers now, Chelsea said. It’ll help the businesses recover faster later on. “So many of us are depending on them being around to reopen when the time comes,” she said.

As the reader who first asked this question said, “I think the ethical thing is to tip a lot, ask them if they feel their employers are treating them fairly, and then sometimes ask for Venmo or another direct pay option so that you can send them a little extra cash, if you can?”

I agree. Until we can find systematic ways to protect everyone’s health and well-being — both during and after this pandemic — taking care of essential workers who put their lives on the line for us is the best choice in a world of complicated options.

Dennis summed it up this way: “Order delivery — it’s fighting the virus.”

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How have you been navigating this complicated world? Do you have any insights on the ethics of essential work, or do you think I’ve gotten something wrong here? As always, please comment below or email me with questions and feedback at

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