On March 16th, Laura Richey dropped off her last Instacart order of the day before heading home with a scratchy throat — the sort of thing she assumed would dissipate with a few days of rest, before getting back to the suite of gig jobs she’s combined to make a full-time career. But when she woke up five days later unable to breathe, Richey knew she had to get help immediately.
“I called the hotline that they have here in my area to find out ‘Hey, what do I do? I don’t have a regular doctor. I don’t have health insurance doing what I do for a living. I need to be seen,’” Richey told me, adding that after an hour of back and forth on the phone, she was finally told to report to the local emergency room immediately for a COVID-19 test.
“When I left the hospital that day, they told me [in] ‘two to five days’ I should have results back,” Richey continued. “So I immediately jumped on all my [gig work] apps and said ‘Look, I’m being tested. I’m under quarantine. Here’s my hospital note. Here’s my discharge paper. Here’s even a picture of my hospital bracelet.’” Richey had hoped she could qualify for some of the financial assistance funds the companies she contracted with had set aside for coronavirus-related cases. Instead she said she found herself stuck in a labyrinth of automated responses, and ultimately, outright rejection.
“Instacart said that what I was submitting was not good enough. That it needed to be on their PDF file that they were sending me,” Richey said. “Well, I’m under quarantine, I’m not allowed to leave. I can’t now take this note that you’re just now telling me that I need to have, to go back to the hospital to get somebody to sign it, to then be able to email it to you.”
In recent days, the company has touted its coronavirus response, noting that it has worked to provide sanitary safety supplies for its workers, as well as extended sick pay and bonuses for its in-store shoppers — the company’s part-time employees who work within a specific store. But for full-service shoppers like Richey — the gig workers who are not only dispatched to multiple stores but actually make deliveries to their customers — the company says it will provide two weeks of extended pay only if they are officially diagnosed with the virus or ordered into isolation or quarantine by government or public health authorities.
Richey’s story underscores how the coronavirus pandemic has stretched Instacart workers and tens of millions of other U.S. gig-economy employees: They’ve never been more indispensable, both for their customers and companies, but their app-based employers still fail to provide them with protections afforded to other workers — even when the basics of their jobs put them at constant risk of exposure to a virus that much of the country is staying home to avoid.
While the company’s in-store shoppers — part-time employees, some of whom unionized this past February in a first for Instacart — have access to accrued sick pay and COVID-19 bonuses, full-service shoppers work without these minimal protections, as Instacart’s shopping algorithm directs them from crowded grocery stores to people’s homes, creating the sort of hectic hustle that potentially increases viral exposure and spread. It’s a dynamic that boils down to more risk, less reward.
Matthew Telles, a full-service shopper, alleges the algorithm has throttled his assignments of late. “I used to do upwards of 50 orders for Instacart a week or more,” Telles said. “Now I’m down to one to 10 on average. I used to make a thousand dollars a week. Four to five days of work. Hard work, but it paid well.”
Telles, who works outside of Chicago, says he’s been making himself available up to 70 hours per week lately, and is now capped at earning around $270 for that time — payment that is made up of a percentage of any given order’s total price, as well as tips.
“That doesn’t even buy food,” he lamented.
There is an inescapable irony at play here. The more places like Instacart highlight their “Community of Household Heroes,” as CEO and Founder Apoorva Mehta dubbed his growing fleet of increasingly called-upon gig workers in a recent post on Medium, the more those same workers are in an elevated position to highlight just how badly they’re being treated during this apocalypse. It’s an irony not lost on some Instacart “shoppers” — the workers who actually pick up and drop off items to your front door — many of whom left their jobs en masse on Monday to protest a company that is “profiting astronomically off of us literally risking our lives, all while refusing to provide us with effective protection, meaningful pay, and meaningful benefits,” according to a call to action from the Gig Workers Collective, which organized the strike.
“The support that we’ve been getting from other shoppers and customers and just allies and people who care has been overwhelming,” Robin Pape, an organizer with the Gig Workers Collective, explained to me. “It hasn’t always been there in the past. But I think the fact that this protest is really focused on health and safety as the primary concern has been able to allow a lot more people to get on board with us.”
Their demands are relatively simple: Instacart should cover the cost of basic safety precautions, provide hazard pay to shoppers, default the in-app tip amount to at least 10 percent, extend and expand pay for Instacart shoppers who have proof of pre-existing conditions that put them at risk for COVID-19 or a need to self quarantine, and push the qualification date for applying for those benefits past the current deadline of April 8th.
“In the last four weeks, Instacart has introduced more than 15 new product features, new health guidelines, new shopper bonuses, new sick-leave policies, and new safety supplies, as well as pay for those affected by COVID-19,” the company said in a statement. “Our team has an unwavering commitment to safely serve our shoppers in the wake of COVID-19, and we’ll continue to share additional updates over the coming days, weeks, and months ahead as we further support this important community.”
For Pape, it’s “too little too late.”
“Really, they’ve offered us nothing,” she said, claiming that much sought-after hand sanitizer the company promised its shoppers likely won’t ship until mid-April — the expected peak of the coronavirus spread.
“A promise of hand sanitizer isn’t the same as hand sanitizer that I can use to deliver your groceries,” Pape noted, wryly. It’s that sense of service that permeated every conversation I had with people involved in Monday’s walk-off.
“I could still be out today delivering groceries to people, even though I technically haven’t been medically cleared to,” Richey — who says she still hasn’t gotten the results of her COVID-19 test — told me. “I’m not that type of person. I’m not going to.”
Instacart says that shoppers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be temporarily blocked from their app until they can prove they have a clean bill of health. And their much 14 days of COVID-19 pay only comes to shoppers with an official diagnosis or who have been given quarantine orders from local, state, or public health officials. Shoppers waiting for test results, or for whom their isolation orders don’t come from the requisite authorities are essentially both cleared to work, and shit out of luck in terms of receiving supplemental pay.
“There are people that are going to be put in a position where their only choice is to expose more people because they have to work,” Richey says.
“I drive a big delivery van, and I do the job, and it should be done professionally, cleanly, and safely for my customers,” said Telles, who also volunteers with the Gig Workers Collective. “Instacart unfortunately doesn’t have a business model that is set up to pay for that level of service, which is the only level of service people should be getting right now. Otherwise, they’re literally potentially killing people and families.”
Instacart, meanwhile, has framed the pandemic as a growth opportunity, pledging to hire 300,000 more “full-service shoppers” to meet increased demand — a move Telles called “reckless.”
“Bringing 300,000 more shoppers, untrained, unprotected, that are kind of desperate right now? I think it’s reckless,” Telles told me. “And when they say 50,000 of them are going to New York and 30,000 California? Those are COVID-19 epicenters. Each one of us, myself included, are a potential vector or asymptomatic [carrier]. It’s a possibility, and we just can’t allow that.”
In fact, that possibility became slightly more real late Monday evening, when an Instacart worker outside of Boston shared an email from Instacart corporate stating there had been a confirmed COVID-19 case at their local store. And therein lies the vicious catch-22 that many of those who have thrown themselves into the gig economy now find themselves; the more they work to meet the increased demand for their services, the more they risk their own health and livelihood as a result. And the nature of companies like Instacart is such that their contracted workers are treated as being crucial and expendable all at once.
“Kroger and Giant and others are doing all of the things that Instacart workers are doing and that Instacart and Amazon say is too much,” Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, explained to me over the phone. “[It’s] being done in other companies in the same sector.”
With that in mind, Monday’s walk-off and others like it, including two separate actions from employees of the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos — one at an Amazon shipping warehouse in New York that recently tested positive for coronavirus exposure, and another for Whole Foods workers nationwide — signal what might be an inflection point in modern American labor movements.
“As a country, we hadn’t focused on worker safety like we have now in this crisis, where it’s on everyone’s lips” Shuler said, pointing out that the Trump White House had effectively abandoned plans from the Obama administration to institute infectious-disease standards for OSHA.
“I think that this crisis has really brought people together and shown the need for a common voice, a common message,” Shuler continued, stressing that the labor movement stands behind all workers, not just unionized ones. “Instacart workers are just the latest example of the fact that, you know, workers need decent wages; they need protection, they need a more certain future for themselves and their families.”
Thanks to the seismic disruptions this pandemic has caused across the country, workers in the food, transportation, and local journalism industries — to name just a few — are now in a position to more acutely demonstrate how invaluable they are to our surprisingly fragile way of life than they’ve been in decades. And while we have a long way to go before we see ourselves on the other side of what is quickly becoming a once-in-a-generation event, this is the perfect time for labor to ask itself not only what it can be doing to make people’s lives better today, but how it can ensure those gains last into tomorrow and beyond.
“I quit my regular job because I was like, ‘This is what I love to do. Right?’” Richey told me. “What do I want to do? I want to work for these companies. I want to be out there delivering people their groceries who can’t get out and do it. You know, I took great pride in what I did.”
I asked her what she’ll be doing on April 5th, after her quarantine period is over.
“I don’t know,” Richey said. “I have no idea.”