Instacart shoppers deserve better from all of us

Instacart shoppers bear the risk so you don’t have to.
Instacart shoppers bear the risk so you don’t have to.
Image: REUTERS/Cheney Orr
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Being an Instacart shopper was never a great gig. The grocery delivery startup—if you can still call Instacart a startup, at eight years old—has long played games with worker pay, tweaking rates and tip settings and other variables that might sound technical and mundane but can make a world of difference to an independent contractor whose livelihood depends on such calculations.

But the coronavirus pandemic has brought the inequities of Instacart shoppers into sharper focus than ever before. The company is enjoying “unprecedented” demand from panicked customers quarantined in their homes. Order volumes grew more than 150% in the first few weeks of March, Instacart said March 23, prompting plans to bring on an additional 300,000 contract workers. Once an expensive luxury, Instacart overnight became an essential American service.

For every Instacart customer who books a home delivery, there’s an independent contractor on the other end fulfilling it. These “shoppers,” as Instacart calls them, are the essential workers that keep the essential service running. They brave supermarkets so customers don’t have to; they scour shelves for items, stand in line to pay, and lug heavy bags to their cars and, later, to the customer’s doorstep. They continue to do this as reports pile up of grocery workers falling ill from Covid-19—and in some cases even dying of it.

For this brave and essential work, Instacart shoppers are paid some amount of money based on an-often changing formula that factors in things like order size, difficulty of shopping experience (for instance, lots of heavy items), distance traveled to the customer’s home, various gamified incentives that Instacart determines, and customer tips. Wage uncertainty is literally written into Instacart’s shopper contract, which states: “Instacart reserves the right to change the rates for payment components at any time.”

These policies have always been a burden on Instacart shoppers, who as contractors lack the basic worker protections afforded to traditional employees. But they have become even more burdensome and, in some cases, dangerous as Instacart shoppers bear the risk of going to the store for customers while struggling to navigate their relationship with a company that offers them at best limited support, and has at times failed to follow through on its promises.

Since the coronavirus crisis started, Instacart has announced various measures to support workers. On March 10, it announced an accrued sick pay policy for shoppers, plus up to 14 days of pay for workers diagnosed with Covid-19 or placed in mandatory quarantine by a public health authority. On March 17, Instacart said customer ratings would carry less weight on shoppers’ work and said it had made it easier for shoppers to deal with out-of-stock items in orders or store-imposed item limits. On March 29, under pressure from shoppers who threatened strikes, Instacart said it would distribute hand sanitizer to workers.

The company’s promises haven’t always been the reality for its frontline workers. The Los Angeles Times reported April 10 that supply of sanitizer and other pledged protective equipment is low, and many shoppers say they are unable to access it.

The Times also reported on one Instacart shopper who had his sick leave claim rejected, despite having all the symptoms of Covid-19 and getting his doctor to complete Instacart’s online form, on the basis that he was not diagnosed with the virus directly or directed to quarantine by a public health agency. Instacart told the Times that only local health authorities “are able to determine the necessity for quarantine based on confirmed cases of Covid-19,” a position that ignores the obvious realities of how overburdened public health systems currently are, and how hard to come by Covid-19 testing remains in most parts of the US.

Another plight to befall Instacart shoppers lately is customers who lure them into accepting orders with the promise of a big tip—a key part of that mysterious earnings equation—only to renege at the last minute. Annaliisa Arambula, an Instacart shopper in Portland, Oregon, told CNN she completed an order from a customer who promised a $54.95 tip, then retroactively changed it to $0. Arambula made only $8.95 for the job, Instacart’s portion of her pay. If you are an Instacart customer, I can only implore you not to be a terrible person who does this. Better yet, take a page from my dad, who gave his latest Instacart shopper a generous tip and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Even if Instacart had the best of intentions, the company can only do so much to protect its workforce. That’s because Instacart is a glorified middleman with very little control over the reality of the service its app facilitates. Instacart doesn’t own any grocery stores, so it can’t actually make changes to stores that would benefit shoppers, like designated Instacart hours. It also doesn’t employ the vast majority of its workers, meaning it can’t tell them what to do without veering dangerously close to “employer-like” levels of control. At best, Instacart can suggest safe practices for shoppers and nudge them with those gamified incentives.

Instacart could seize this moment, its biggest-ever business opportunity, to also start a new chapter with workers. The company could raise shopper pay, either taking a hit to its bottom line or passing that added cost along to customers, many of whom are likely now willing to pay premium prices to avoid having to go to a store. It could loosen its sick leave policies to ensure that workers aren’t forced to justify having contracted or come into contact with a virus that the entire US is struggling to test and trace.

But in the absence of such proactive measures from Instacart, it’s up to customers. If you order from Instacart, understand that you are paying not just for groceries and delivery, but to offload the risky task of going to a store to another person who will now bear that risk. Tip generously, knowing your tip could be the bulk of that person’s wages. If you have extra masks or sanitizer, perhaps offer some to a frontline worker who may not have any at all. Be kind, and understand that if a specific item you ordered was out of stock, or quantity limited, your shopper is doing their best in a tough situation. Right now, it’s up to customers to treat Instacart shoppers like the essential workers that they are.