Does being made “essential” finally give gig workers the upper hand?

A long list of concerns.
A long list of concerns.
Image: Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo
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Delivery, grocery, and warehouse workers have been declared “essential” players in the US economy, exempting them from stay-at-home orders in many parts of the country. But while demand for their services have surged, workers are expressing growing discontent about being exposed to one another, and to customers, during a pandemic.

This week, Instacart workers across the US stayed at home on March 30 and did not open the grocery-delivery app, in a bid for better pay and protections. Some Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, walked off their jobs, demanding a shutdown and thorough cleaning of the facility. And on March 31, some Whole Foods workers reportedly arranged to call in sick, applying pressure for paid leave, free coronavirus testing, and better wages.

Some of the terms are new, but the fight is not. The crisis is highlighting, and heightening, long-simmering labor tensions at companies with flexible workforces, particularly those that have maintained that their workers are independent contractors, and therefore ineligible for standard employee benefits such as unemployment insurance and minimum wage.

But as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the US, gig work is looking increasingly risky. Instacart worker Jaime Brown, 42, says she takes a number of new safety measures when filling orders in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. She carries hand sanitizer now, and before going into a store she gives herself a “pep talk” about not touching her face. She also has stopped working on the apps Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash to help limit her exposure to different people.

“Multi-gigging is dangerous now because you have to think harder and don’t pay as close of attention when you’re toggling between apps,” she says. “I have really thought about what direction I’m going to go in with Instacart, especially if we have an influx of new shoppers [competing to pick orders for customers] and if the pay keeps dropping.”

Though workers tempted to pull back are perhaps more easily replaced now than just a few weeks ago—see the sudden spike in US jobless claims—the provisions of the $2 trillion federal relief package suggest a replacement labor force will not assemble as quickly as it otherwise might have. For many workers, unemployment insurance benefits and stimulus checks will exceed the pay they could earn from Amazon or Instacart.

The existing workers, meanwhile, are expressing their displeasure at a time when their services are most crucial, which may put pressure on companies to take up more responsibility for them.

“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. “The last recession turned the labor market into an employer’s market. If employers were expecting the same thing during this downturn, they are sorely mistaken.”

“This is unusual”

During an economic downturn, waves of workers striking are uncommon, economists say. But the pandemic has concentrated the spotlight, and the public’s reliance, on a sector of the economy where the usual forces of supply and demand and risk and reward suddenly seem off balance.

Higher-risk jobs usually offer higher pay. But when people took up gig work in recent years, they didn’t expect their jobs to be particularly unsafe, says Arindrajit Dube, a professor of economics at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, workers aren’t receiving higher pay and can’t necessarily find another job.

Typically, if a worker feels trapped in a job, the next step to effect change is to use their voice at work to win reforms, says Dube. “I expect we’re going to see more [workers speaking out] especially because of increased safety concerns and because the market mechanisms are not particularly well-functioning,” he says.

Ahead of the strike, Instacart had rolled out changes to its policies. It’s now offering 14 days of sick pay for any Instacart delivery worker who is diagnosed with Covid-19 or placed in mandatory quarantine, defaulting tips to a percentage instead of a fixed amount, and manufacturing its own hand sanitizer spray that will be made available to all workers shopping for and delivering Instacart orders. The organizers of the Instcart protest said workers want the company to provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, plus “hazard pay” of an extra $5 per order, default tip rates of at least 10%, and assistance for workers impacted by Covid-19.

Even if Instacart offered more protections, the company still does “not pay well enough financially for me to take that risk,” says Glen Meyers, a gig worker in Cleveland who says he quit the app on Monday. Meyers, 50, says he has an elderly father that he can’t visit because his work puts him in contact with too many other people. “We do care about the customers and we love doing the work,” says Meyers. “It’s just we feel that we need adequate compensation for it in order to take on these risks.” He says he is now focusing on gig work with companies like Amazon and Shipt, where he says the pay is better and conditions are safer.

More pressure on companies to respond

Experts say that it’s possible more work stoppages will occur if conditions don’t change. It’s also possible the norms of gig work will change in ways that will last long after the crisis has passed.

“There’s big money to be made for every worker,” says Suresh Naidu, professor of economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University. “The workers have a lot of bargaining power in the sense that they’re worth a lot to the company right now.”

This is also a great opportunity for the companies to create good experiences for consumers, as the pandemic is prompting many people to use these apps for the first time, ZipRecruiter’s Pollak adds. Public image even more broadly is a consideration, too, of course, with politicians like Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doing their part to pressure the likes of Amazon and Instacart.

It’s still early days in the crisis for the US, and as we all know now, the dynamics we observe one day can be completely changed the next. But the labor actions carried out so far do not yet seem to have had much effect on the companies.

Amazon reportedly fired an organizer of the Staten Island walkout. (The company said he came on site for the walkout after having been asked to remain home, with pay, for 14 days after being exposed to a co-worker with Covid-19.) And Instacart said in an emailed statement on March 30 that the strike by delivery workers had “no impact” on the company’s operations and that it saw “40% more shoppers on the platform [filling orders for customers] compared to the same day and time last week.”