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How Your Pizza Delivery Guy Is Getting Stiffed This Super Bowl

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PIZZA
HuffPost/Damon Scheleur

WASHINGTON -- When the Seahawks take on the Broncos in the Meadowlands this Sunday, pizza joints from coast to coast will celebrate their biggest sales day of the year. Domino's alone expects to dish out 11 million slices to America's football fans -- an 80 percent increase over the typical Sunday -- while the NFL's "Official Pizza Sponsor," Papa John's, will have its brand slathered all over the festivities, with pitchman Peyton Manning taking center stage.

The in-home feeding frenzy makes the Super Bowl a monster day not just for pizza but for pizza delivery fees -- the surcharges that chains now tack onto orders bound for customers' homes. First introduced about a decade ago, the fees have swelled from their modest beginnings of 50 cents to between $1.50 and $3 per order. They're now used by many independent pizzerias and all the big operators and their franchisees, including Domino's, Papa John's and Pizza Hut.

Contrary to what some customers might think, those fees don't necessarily go to the men and women delivering the pizzas. In addition to their small hourly wages, delivery drivers get reimbursed for the cost of wear and tear to their cars, but the reimbursement rate has nothing to do with the delivery fee. In fact, it usually adds up to about half the fee that customers are charged. Some customers, meanwhile, spot the delivery charge on the receipt and decide to skimp on the tip.

The way many drivers see it, the fees serve as a discrete price increase that ultimately eats into their pay.

"Unfortunately, driver reimbursements have not gone up in sync with those delivery charges," said Greg Maschok, who's been delivering pizza for nearly 11 years and runs a lively online message board devoted to drivers' issues. "A lot of people are under the assumption that the driver gets it. The delivery fees hurt our tips, and our tips are the main reason we do this job. I'd love to see them go away."

The fees aren't just the subject of online posts from drivers like Maschok -- they're now the subject of lawsuits. In Minnesota and Massachusetts, drivers have filed suits against Domino's, claiming that by charging such fees and then keeping them, the company is violating state laws. This month, a Massachusetts judge sided with the drivers in denying Domino's request to have that lawsuit thrown out.

The legal question in that case is whether or not Domino's does a sufficient job in letting customers know that the drivers don't get to keep the fee -- or, in other words, that customers need to be tipping on top of that charge, since many drivers, like restaurant servers, are paid below the normal minimum wage and rely on gratuities to get by.

Stephen Churchill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in that case, told HuffPost that customers who order over the phone aren't informed of the fee. He also noted that many customers wouldn't see the delivery fee explanation that's on the side of the box -- or that's dropped in fine print at the bottom of the Domino's homepage, under the heading "Legal Stuff," along with a disclaimer on its gluten-free crust.

"It's completely disingenuous to suggest that the disclosure [on boxes] will inform any customer about anything," said Churchill, adding that such boxes are currently stacked in his law office. "To me it's basically a scheme for Domino's to take extra money from the customer and really take money from the pockets of workers."

Jeremy White, editor of the trade publication Pizza Today, told HuffPost in an email that the fees are there for good reason. As opposed to simple takeout, delivery is "an expensive and risk-laden way of doing business," he said. The extra charges help cover the additional cost of liability insurance, not to mention more employees, uniforms and the heated delivery bags that chains use.

"The cost to the operator of offering delivery has increased exponentially since the heyday of free delivery in the 1980s. The delivery fee helps lessen the blow of offering the service," White said. "Unfortunately for pizza delivery drivers, oftentimes the customer errantly believes the delivery fee constitutes a mandatory or pre-paid tip to the driver."

Tim McIntyre, a Domino's spokesman, said the company was the last of the major pizza chains to institute such a fee, in 2005. The charges, he said, were put in place to cover the extra costs that go with delivery. Domino's, he went on, believes that using a delivery fee is a better way to cover those costs than hiking the cost of a pie.

"The vast majority of Domino's customers understand the additional costs associated with delivery, and are willing to pay the extra money for the convenience of delivery to their homes," he said. "There is a message to consumers on the pizza box, which is there at the request of a number of drivers. There is also a note on the homepage of our website."

Papa John's and Pizza Hut did not respond to questions about their delivery fees.

Anyone who's dithered over ordering Papa John's versus Domino's knows the pizza delivery business is a highly competitive one, with the chains pressuring one another to offer deals at $9.99 and other flashy price points. As McIntyre himself noted, "we're actually selling pizzas for about the same price we were 30 years ago."

In the eyes of many drivers, that's the problem. While pizza prices have stayed the same, delivery fees have gotten higher -- implying that such surcharges are helping to cover not just driver uniforms and hot bags but also the rising price of cheese, sauce and pepperoni. If the costs went into the menu, the thinking goes, drivers might not face customers reluctant to tip the pizza dude on top of a delivery fee.

"When they charge it as delivery fee, it misleads customers into thinking that's what they're paying for," said Matti Frost, who delivers for an independent pizzeria in Pennsylvania. "Rather than bump prices up a nickel on items, they put it on the backs of us. Their fees have been growing, and the drivers haven't been getting commensurate increases."

A few drivers who spoke with HuffPost said their wages have actually declined in recent years. After the last series of minimum wage increases, passed by Congress in 2007, some franchisees apparently chose to switch their drivers from the normal minimum wage to a "tipped" minimum wage, which counts gratuities against the legal minimum. The move allowed them to reduce the wage they paid directly to drivers while having customers' tips cover the difference.

One driver said he earns the normal minimum wage while in the store, and a lower tipped minimum wage while he's on the road, for an average of about $5.85 an hour. The reimbursement for mileage on his car is about the same as it was a decade ago.

"I make less per hour today than before the delivery charge began," said the driver, who delivers for a Pizza Hut franchisee and asked to speak anonymously out of fear he'd be punished.

In the course of reporting this story, HuffPost ordered delivery via phone from each of the respective "Big Three." None of the stores notified us on the phone that we'd be charged a delivery fee and that it wouldn't go to the driver. They did have disclaimers either on their receipts or boxes, although to varying effectiveness.

For instance, the explanation of the fee on the Papa John's box, and the suggestion that we tip the driver "for outstanding service," were almost completely covered by the price sticker. (Papa John's also noted the delivery fee on its receipt, however.) Domino's didn't have the explanation on its receipt -- only the box, which most customers probably wouldn't read while out on the front porch.

HuffPost asked all the drivers about the delivery fee, since they typically can't talk about tips unless the customer opens the door to the discussion. They all said they felt the fees cut into their gratuities.

"We fuss about it," one said.

McIntyre, the Domino's spokesman, said that the average Domino's delivery driver makes more than $10 per hour, and that it's primarily a part-time gig, with drivers working during the prime nighttime pizza hours. Most drivers are supplementing another job or working through school, he said. "We have very few full-time or 'career' drivers, because the position was never meant to be such a thing."

But some drivers do view it as a career. Frost, for one, started delivering 15 years ago. He said wages haven't really gone up for himself or many of his colleagues. Over the last 7 years, his base wage before tips has climbed just 50 cents, to $6 per hour, meaning he's falling behind the rising cost of living.

What keeps him doing the job is the aggregate of small pleasures: being out on the road, listening to the music he wants to, and seeing his longtime regulars come to the door.

"It's really odd to think about it, but I've watched children grow up doing this job. I don't know other jobs where you sort of come in and out of people's lives every other weekend," Frost said. "I just wish the pay was more commensurate to the cost of living. There are risks of robbery, accidents, bad weather. We bring thousands of dollars of our own property to work to do our job. Your car is your living, and there's no mercy if you get in an accident or your car breaks down."