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Spare a thought for Gustavo, the guy delivering your ramen in the wildfire smoke

Gustavo Ajche snapped a selfie on the street while making his rounds on Wednesday.
Gustavo Ajche
Gustavo Ajche snapped a selfie on the street while making his rounds on Wednesday.

As many New Yorkers isolated inside this week to avoid the smoke that enveloped the city, one man was rushing ramen across town for a customer's dinner. He's one of thousands of workers who just had to suck it up — literally.

Who is he? Gustavo Ajche is a food delivery driver and construction worker in New York City. He's also the founder of labor group Los Deliveristas Unidos and a member of the Workers Justice Project, a group that fights for better working conditions.

  • Ajche is originally from Guatemala, and has been in New York City since 2004.
  • His work in activism aims to organize food delivery drivers in New York to demand better pay and working conditions.
  • He has also been delivering through New York's historically bad air pollution this past week, as well as other major events over the last 19 years.

  • Want more on life in the U.S.? Listen to Consider This on how Black immigrants are navigating life in the South.


    What's the big deal? Aside from the raging wildfires, increasing global temperatures, and hazardous air quality for millions of people in North America?

  • Gustavo says that gig economy workers are faced with a curious duality: While they're relied upon to keep the city and its residents afloat, they also still struggle to secure basic rights like earning the minimum wage.
  • According to the number of bikes registered with the New York City Department of Transportation, there are roughly 65,000 delivery drivers getting people their Sweetgreen and acai bowls on a daily basis.
  • As more climate emergencies are expected in the future (and wildfire season is just getting started) people will continue to rely on delivery drivers to brave the elements instead of heading out themselves.
  • What's he saying? Ajche spoke with NPR about what it was like delivering this week as a smoky haze blanketed his city.

    This interview was originally conducted in Spanish, and has been translated to English.

    On delivering on Tuesday:

    I had seen that they were saying this was coming, but I didn't imagine it would be at this magnitude.

    On Tuesday, when I set out for the day, I started realizing there was a burnt odor in the air, and as the hours passed by the atmosphere and the weather began to deteriorate.

    But that day, I didn't really pay much attention. I went out without anything. It wasn't until I got home that evening that I felt a burning sensation in my throat, my eyes, and a headache.

    I just took a shower, took some Aspirin and went to bed.

    A photo Ajche took while making his deliveries on Wednesday.
    / Gustavo Ajche
    /
    Gustavo Ajche
    A photo Ajche took while making his deliveries on Wednesday.

    And Wednesday, when conditions became even worse in New York:

    I wore a mask, and that helped, but I didn't have any protection for my eyes. So what I would do, is I would go to the bathroom, wet some paper towels, and wipe my eyes off. And that's just how the day went by.

    Once again, we delivery drivers were demonstrating that we are essential workers in this city.

    There are plenty of people in this city with asthma and other medical conditions, but there were also [thousands of] delivery workers on the streets on these days that were working nonstop. In fact, they were particularly busy days for us.

    New York is predisposed to extreme weather conditions, be it extreme heat, extreme cold, storms, or other events like the pandemic. Delivery drivers have been working through it all.

    On tipping during the extreme smoke:

    I did notice that people were tipping a bit more. I work in the same areas, and see a lot of the same customers, and a regular that would normally tip $4 would tip $6-$7 instead.

    But I don't think tipping more justifies it. As delivery workers, we're doing essential work, and I think the just and dignified thanks for our labor is to pay us the minimum wage.

    So, what now?

  • Air quality conditions started improving slightly in the greater New York City metropolitan area on Thursday, but winds pushing the smoke further south are now burdening other cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
  • Ajche and other delivery drivers continue to fight for better wages in New York, as New York City council continues to grapple with the question.
  • Learn more:

  • El Niño has officially begun. Here's what that means for the U.S.
  • When will air quality improve? A lot is riding on the wind
  • How Canadian wildfires are worsening U.S. air quality and what you can do to cope
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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