When people retreated into their homes last spring as the pandemic tightened its grip, the delivery drivers at Roche Bros. were pressed into action like never before. As demand for their services surged, they became lifelines for customers and for the company, risking exposure to the virus on multiple fronts — at the store, where they loaded up deliveries in close proximity to other workers, and then again at people’s homes.
But last month, as the risk of COVID-19 receded and the country began opening up again, the delivery drivers’ jobs were outsourced to a company called The Grocery Runners, which uses gig workers to make deliveries in their own cars, according to several drivers. A few of the staff drivers quit, and others have been kept on to deliver to major customers, the drivers said. But the rest have been relegated to in-store positions, without the opportunity to earn tips — $20 to $50 on an average day, drivers said, climbing to as much as $250 during the pandemic. Some clean or stock shelves, others shop for online customers or take orders out for curbside pickup, in some cases handing off groceries to the very people who replaced them.
“What a way to reward the hard work, dedication, and risk,” said one of the former drivers, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. “We got the rug pulled out from under us.”
“I thought I was a hero, but I’m expendable. . . . Welcome to capitalism, I guess.”
Roche Bros., which is based in Mansfield and has 21 stores in Massachusetts, according to its website, including Roche Bros., Sudbury Farms, and Brothers Marketplace, was one of the few remaining grocers in the country to employ its own delivery drivers for online grocery purchases. Stop & Shop employs its own drivers, but most rely on on-demand services such as Instacart or Shipt. Roche Bros. didn’t respond to questions about the outsourcing, so it’s unclear how many drivers have been affected.
“This undertaking was part of our overall ecommerce strategy and well underway prior to the pandemic,” Linda SanGiacomo, Roche Bros. vice president of marketing, said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. “Due to the increase in demand for delivery, accelerated during the pandemic, we expanded our delivery capabilities in order to meet the growing needs of our valued customers. Roche Bros. is committed to delivering a positive experience to our customers and our associates, while continuing to serve our community.”
The Grocery Runners didn’t respond to requests for comment.
When Roche Bros. started its delivery service in 2005 — adding 25 full-time employees and 16 temperature-controlled delivery trucks, according to news reports at the time — online grocery sales made up only about .6 percent of total US grocery sales. Last year, online sales grew 54 percent, accounting for 7.4 percent of total grocery sales, according to the research firm Inside Intelligencer. And the new shopping habits formed during the pandemic are expected to stick. By 2023, 11.2 percent of total US grocery sales are expected to be online orders.
At Roche Bros., online sales are an even bigger part of the business, said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm. Of the $550,000 to $600,000 in average weekly sales at a Roche Bros. store, Flickinger estimated, about 15 percent is home delivery, a share that jumped to around 25 percent during the pandemic.
This growth — which the drivers played a major role in — is likely what caused Roche Bros. to scrutinize the delivery operation to make it more efficient, said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Indeed, one driver said the company’s e-commerce director told him that in order to keep up with demand during the pandemic, the company had to invest heavily in its delivery trucks — which have to be insured, maintained, filled with gas, and kept running all day to power the refrigeration systems — and outsourcing this service would cut down on these expenses.
The practice of cutting labor costs has intensified during the pandemic, Striffler said, but this is a “particularly bad look” for grocery stores, which saw profits rise about 10 percent on average during the pandemic, according to the Strategic Resource Group.
“It seems totally unfair and unnecessary to go after the very drivers who risked their lives during the pandemic, particularly because they grew the business,” Striffler said. “They should be getting rewarded.”
But Flickinger at Strategic Resource Group said outsourcing delivery is a “smart, strategic move.” Seventy percent of weekly grocery sales occur between Friday and Sunday, and on-demand drivers can meet the need as it arises, he said, allowing the company to shift delivery drivers to other roles. And with food and energy prices through the roof, grocers are trying to reduce expenses, he said: “They’re looking at ways to cut costs without giving shoppers a higher grocery bill.”
The former drivers are making the same hourly wage they did before, around $15 an hour, but without tips, and without the freedom of being out on the road. And the new jobs are not without risks. In April, an employee taking an order to the parking lot for a curbside pickup at the Roche Bros. in Acton was hit by a car and died a few days later.
One former driver referred to being in a “cell” in his new role inside the store. Another said he had been anxious about getting sick during the pandemic, but “it felt good to be able to do something for people who weren’t able to get out.” Now he’s stuck in the store all day, doing jobs he wasn’t hired to do.
“To me,” he said, “it’s just another example of big business more concerned about making money than the welfare of their own people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note that Stop & Shop employs its own drivers. The story has been updated to reflect that change.