On March 25, the U.S. became the leading country in the world for coronavirus cases. As of March 30, there were more than 140,000 confirmed cases and 2,400 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.
Cities have all but shut down in response to public health advisories. Millions of people are working from home or other non-office locations in order to honor “social distancing,” leading to a surge in home deliveries for app-based workers like Instacart’s Shoppers, who are tasked with shopping and delivering customers’ groceries. Instacart itself reported that Shoppers have seen on average a 15 percent increase in basket sizes.
However, despite the heightened risk that Shoppers are facing by doing the work that is considered too dangerous for the general public, Shoppers say Instacart hasn’t made much of an effort to protect them from potential transmission or incentivized them to cease working despite the risks it poses.
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Instacart initially said it would give two weeks’ paid leave through April 8 to any Shopper who tested positive for the coronavirus, despite the fact that tests are rarely accessible . However, one Shopper TalkPoverty spoke to said that they didn’t know a single person who had received paid sick leave.
In response, Instacart Shoppers nationwide walked off the job March 30, their second strike in four months, and are refusing to return until their demands are met. Because gig workers like Instacart Shoppers work alone, they rarely have face-to-face contact with one another, highlighting how extraordinarily prepared they must be to conduct a large-scale labor action such as this.
In a Medium post announcing the strike, Instacart Shoppers working with labor organization Gig Workers Collective wrote that they were demanding an added $5 of hazard pay per order as well as provision of complimentary sanitation supplies such as cleansing wipes and hand sanitizer, paid time off for Shoppers with preexisting conditions that put them at high risk if they contracted coronavirus or whose doctors advised them to self-isolate, and an extension of these benefits beyond April 8.
“Instacart has turned this pandemic into a PR campaign, portraying itself the hero of families that are sheltered-in-place, isolated, or quarantined,” Gig Workers Collective wrote.
“Instacart has refused to act proactively in the interests of its Shoppers, customers, and public health, so we are forced to take matters into our own hands. We will not continue to work under these conditions. We will not risk our safety, our health, or our lives for a company that fails to adequately protect us, fails to adequately pay us, and fails to provide us with accessible benefits should we become sick.”
Instacart Shoppers can make as little as $7 for up to three orders or $5 for up to five deliveries only, due to the company’s opaque algorithm structure for compensation, and aren’t automatically entitled to employment benefits such as sick leave or health care due to their independent contractor status. Some have argued that they are being misclassified and should be termed employees. In a historic first, the CARES Act, which President Trump signed into law March 27, extended unemployment benefits to gig workers. However, because these benefits are taxpayer-subsidized, they relieve gig companies like Instacart of any legal obligation to provide employee benefits.
Matthew Telles, a veteran Shopper in the Chicago suburbs, said that while he makes himself available on the Instacart app to work for as many as 77 hours a week, the amount of time he actually spends working for Instacart has dwindled since fewer and fewer batches can actually cover his expenses.
“I work anywhere from about zero to eight hours a week for Instacart, and that’s [only] when they pay enough to obtain my secured services,” he said, adding that the pandemic has driven down wages even more.
He explained that since authorities began encouraging people to stay home, Instacart has essentially begun bundling three orders into one by combining multiple “orders” into one batch. That allows the company to elide per-order pricing, leading Shoppers to accept batches that may promise a large amount of money that decreases when they reach the actual register to check.
If a customer asks for, say, 20 unique items, Shoppers are guaranteed a base pay plus tip that’s a particular percentage of the entire order. However, because grocers are now limiting the quantity of particular items one can buy, such as toilet paper and wipes, Shoppers are forced to buy less of a particular item, allowing Instacart to pare down the guaranteed wage and tip for every item a Shopper can’t secure for a customer.
On top of that, Telles added, Instacart is capitalizing upon laid off workers’ desperate need to pay the bills by ramping up their operations. On March 23, Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta announced plans to hire 300,000 new Shoppers in response to anticipated customer demand over the next few months.
“They’re not vetting who’s a Shopper now,” Telles said. “It’s pretty much — if you’re alive, you can be a Shopper.”
Vanessa Bain, a Silicon Valley-based Shopper and founder of Gig Workers Collective, agreed.
“It’s going to be a disaster if [Instacart] is successful in hiring 300,000 people,” she said. “Veteran Shoppers are breaking down. The last time I shopped, I had an anxiety attack. And that’s just speaking about veteran Shoppers who are used to the general stress of the job. I can’t imagine what it’s like for new people just getting their footing. It’s really uncharted territory, shopping during the middle of a pandemic. People aren’t respecting social distancing in grocery stores.”
Bain added that because she lives with multiple elderly people who are at high risk of contracting coronavirus, she hasn’t shopped since March 13.
Sarah Clarke, another Gig Workers Collective organizer, said Instacart was capitalizing upon the divide between its corporate employees, who are guaranteed benefits such as health insurance and remote work, and that of Shoppers, whom many cities and local governments consider “essential workers” but aren’t treating as such.
“Instacart knows there are workers who can afford to stay at home and shelter in place, and then there are workers who absolutely need the money and who will work under any conditions because they have to,” Clarke said. “But you can’t really fault someone who’s working while they’re sick if they absolutely need to [to pay their bills].”
Above all else, however, all three organizers TalkPoverty spoke to said that the strike was being conducted out of concern for Shoppers’ customers, who bear the brunt of the risks they say Instacart is forcing them to shoulder by not guaranteeing basic sick leave and protective equipment.
“If [Shoppers] get the virus, most likely we will pass it on to customers,” Clarke said. “Lots of Shoppers are living in fear because they’re terrified they’ll pass it on to customers.”
“We’re the people customers interface with,” Bain said. “Most people who have ordered [from Instacart] are doing so to comply with the shelter in place, and to mitigate the risk of spreading disease. It’s literally now a matter of public health and safety.”
“It’s reckless,” Telles stated, speaking for himself, not the strike organizers. “We’re out here risking our lives. If I were a state official, I’d bar Instacart from my state.”
Following the strike announcement, Instacart almost immediately updated its policies. In an email to TalkPoverty, the company said it had extended its paid leave through May 6 to anyone who had been ordered by a state, local, or public health official to self-isolate or quarantine, but made no mention of Shoppers’ demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) or added hazard pay. Instacart added on Sunday that it would allow customers to set their own default tip payment, but workers said it’s not enough: The company is still refusing hazard pay and expanded sick pay.
But it’s too little too late, Bain said.
“We all have the potential of becoming vectors. Everyone’s a stakeholder. The stakes are very different from normal working conditions. Nobody should be against the idea of workers having safety measures to keep their customers alive and themselves safe.”
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify Instacart’s compensation structure for batch orders.