Don't Shoot the Messenger! He's Lucky to Have a Job

Since the beginning of the year, New York City has added 34,000 private sector jobs. But some industries are lagging -- among them couriers and messengers. In leaner times, delivery businesses are slimming down and innovating to stay afloat.

Before the recession, 70 people worked for A to Z Couriers in Manhattan. But Adam Dally, the founder, said his orders dropped off so steeply at the end of 2008, he laid off almost half of his staff. He said firing 30 people was excruciating.

“Many of my staff have been with me since day one, which is 20 years [ago], and so it’s been very difficult indeed,” Dally said. “We’re a small company and we compete against large companies, and we are very close.”

But the cutbacks at A to Z are not unusual. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said messenger and courier businesses employed 20,000 people at a pre-recession peak in 2007. Today, fewer than 14,000 people have jobs in the industry, making the sector among the worst-affected in the city.

From September 2009 to September 2010, only the finance sector lost more jobs on a percentage basis.

One reason: when recession hits, sending packages by messenger is one of the first perks to get the ax. Plus, low-paying, low-skill messenger jobs are tied closely to some very high-paying, high-skill sectors, that also suffered steep losses in New York, like accountancy, real estate, architecture and advertising.

Recently though, there have been signs of a turnaround and couriers are beginning to feel the effect, too.

A couple mornings a week, the waiting room at Velocity Express on the West Side of Manhattan fills up with job applicants -- mostly men. The company, based in Texas, is hiring about 50 messengers and looking for drivers, too.

Amelinda Torres of Queens lost her last job seven months ago and spent the summer and fall knocking on doors, unannounced.

“I would introduce myself, [and say] ‘I’m officially looking for work,’” Torres said.

“And they’d say 'well'. They’ll look at my resume, and 'we’ll keep you on file.'”

But nothing worked out, until last month. Three weeks ago, Velocity Express hired Torres as an assistant site manager. Now she’s training to track couriers and packages, and she can barely contain her excitement.

“I lived off my savings and it was pretty much to the bottom of it. I'm grateful to God that it worked out,” Torres said.

Velocity Express Division President Michele Cavaliere said demand for delivery services has been creeping upward for several months and she’s optimistic the company can retain some of its new employees, even after Santa Claus has left town.

“I would think about 20 percent of our hiring base right now is just for the season, but we should retain the rest,” Cavaliere said.

Still, the delivery business is changing and some clients will never return. Adam Dally says his former customers in the fashion industry now send their portfolios by e-mail. As a consequence, he’s innovating. This summer, Dally launched a side business he believes is desperately needed in New York City -- a sort of taxi service for dogs.

“People with smaller dogs can usually put them in a bag and hail a cab and it’s not a problem. But once you have a dog over 20 pounds, it is very difficult,” Dally said.

The hounds ride to the vet, the groomer, or any other destination in A to Z’s big purple petmobile. Dally believes this business will be a good one in the years to come. After all, it’s not yet possible to send a Labrador Retriever as an e-mail attachment.