‘It’s a sweat factory’: Instacart workers ready to strike for pay and conditions

Gig workers report falling wages, unmanageable orders and lack of concern from the company

Last modified on Fri 15 Oct 2021 09.13 EDT

For Instacart workers across the country, the popular grocery delivery app promised flexibility and a solid wage, perks that enticed thousands to join the app during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But amid worsening working conditions including plummeting pay, safety concerns, and a punitive rating system, Instacart employees, known as shoppers, will be staging a walkout on 16 October and will continue striking until the company meets their demands for better treatment.

Workers, uniting as the Gig Workers Collective, have been organizing against Instacart for years, citing what they say is a trend of unresponsiveness from the company in the face of their concerns. The collective’s asks are mostly for a restoration of features the company has dropped: reinstating Instacart’s commission pay model, paying its shoppers per order rather than bundling them, a 10% default tip instead of the current 5%, transparency about how orders are assigned, and a rating system that doesn’t hurt shoppers forproblems outside their control.

Shoppers have also asked for occupational death benefits, noting the increasing dangers shoppers face on the job.

Ahead of the walk-off, the Guardian spoke to three Instacart shoppers on their journey to joining Instacart, problems they have encountered since joining the app, and why they’re participating in the 16 October protest.

Willy Solis, 43, Instacart shopper in Texas since October 2019, lead organizer with the Gig Workers Collective

For Willy Solis, Instacart started as a way to make ends meet during a transitional employment period. After running a business since 2008 and while trying to move out of state, he joined Instacart because it offered a low bar of entry and the flexibility Willy needed.

“I thought it was a pretty good deal as far as the pay compared to what I was actually doing, the time frame I was allowed to do it in, and all that stuff,” said Solis.

But soon, Solis noticed dips in his pay – small at first, but ever-growing. When Instacart decided to bundle individual orders together (“batches” as shoppers call them), batches began to double and triple in size – with 60 or 70 items in a batch for multiple orders at different addresses – while the pay remained the same. Tips, which make up the bulk of pay for shoppers, also dropped when Instacart’s default tip was set at a paltry 5%.

In some cases, he was making up to 50% less than average on orders. Soon, Solis was experiencing huge cuts in his pay from when he started. While he once brought home $1,000 a week, now Solis often struggles to break $500 for a week’s work after sitting on the app for hours in search of profitable orders, even while working across multiple apps besides Instacart.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s just not enough and I’m not making what I need to make,” said Solis.

Instacart’s changing pay structure is the source of at least two class-action lawsuits, but safety is also something Solis has struggled with. As an immunocompromised person, trying to stay safe during the pandemic while having to work to pay bills was a challenge that Instacart offered little support with.

While the company did send out personal protective equipment (PPE) to shoppers after facing public outrage and mounting collective action, Solis says the PPE was of poor quality and he was never compensated for the equipment he bought himself. When Solis did get Covid, he didn’t qualify for Instacart’s pay assistance program, and had to rely on family during the two months he was unable to work.

“It was a very tough period of time financially,” said Solis. “I had to work my tail off to try and get back on track.”

Changes to Instacart’s support service, now automated, has also left Solis feeling unsafe on the job. During threatening situations Solis has experienced, having live Instacart support was important for de-escalation; now, he says, that human resource is gone.

Instacart’s newly tenured CEO, Fidji Simo, has offered little response to workers’ concerns, and Solis says he’s ready to strike.

“I’m participating in the Instacart walkout because I feel like there is no other option. We don’t have another choice but to get so loud and so vocal that we bring that kind of attention to the issues,” said Solis.

Jen, shopper advocate, 54, based in Massachusetts, shopping with Instacart since April 2020

During the pandemic, the clothes business side hustle that Jen had established came to sudden halt. Looking for a different income source, Jen noticed long wait times on Instacart’s app while trying to get her own groceries delivered. She was intrigued and decided to sign up for herself. (Jen asked to be identified with her first name only for safety reasons.)

“I thought, ‘Well, let me help during the pandemic. Let me make money and let me also help with this shortage of shoppers.’”

Shopping on Instacart was enjoyable at first; using the app was convenient and demand was still high. But with Instacart’s dropping pay and losing profitable orders with bots, hackers using stolen Instacart shopper accounts to shop on the app, Jen struggled to find competitive orders.

“I haven’t shopped in more than four weeks now because there’s not one batch that comes on my screen that would put me making over minimum wage,” said Jen.

Jen also struggled with Instacart’s rating system, often described as “punishing” by shoppers. While Instacart maintains the system is fair and allows for the lowest rating of 100 deliveries to be dropped, shoppers remarked that a rating slightly below 5 stars could significantly affect their earning potential.

Jen found herself frequently penalized for false accusations of not delivering items from customers. On one occasion, after delivering bulk bags of Halloween candy to one shopper, Jen was penalized for not fulfilling the order – even though she had pictures of the completed delivery and she saw the customer bring the order inside.

“At the end of the day, nothing happened. The customer got the candy for free and I was punished.”

Jen, who runs a YouTube channel about her experiences with Instacart and aggregated concerns she hears from others, noted Instacart’s indifferent response to shoppers’ concerns, including failing to address the impact that customer fraud has on shoppers.

“Instacart doesn’t care. It’s a revolving door. It’s like a sweat factory. They’ll put 100 in, fire 10, and put 100 more back in. They are soulless when it comes to their frontline workers,” she said. “It’s just not OK. We’re human beings and we deserve to be treated like such.”

Robin Pape, 42, based in upstate New York, Instacart shopper since 2018

In 2018, after receiving an Instacart referral link from a friend who needed the extra sign-up bonus, Robin Pape decided to try the app out. But soon, with Instacart’s new pay structure, Pape saw her pay fall by more than a third.

Most of the Pape spends on the app she is waiting for worthwhile delivery orders, as batches grow increasingly scarce given the more than 200% increase in active Instacart workers in Pape’s area since the time she started.

“They were so proud [of] the hundreds of thousands of shoppers they were hiring [during the pandemic] while still not sending out PPE or appropriate hazard pay,” said Pape.

Like other shoppers, Pape has had run-ins with Instacart’s harsh rating system. She has seen her ratings drop even when customers don’t add a rating at all. Pape noted additional challenges: changing store layouts, a national supply shortage and other conditions that remain out of her control.

“There are certainly people who feel like [an Instacart shopper] is not a skilled position. But there certainly are a lot of skills in navigating the stores and shopping for three different customers and communicating with them and keeping it all straight and doing it efficiently enough to be competitive in this gig,” said Pape.

As one of Gig Worker Collective’s founding members, Pape believes the upcoming walkout is an opportunity to speak out against Instacart and treatment that has “only gotten worse and worse and worse”.

“I’m supporting the Instacart walkout because if a company can’t afford to pay their contractors a living wage, they don’t need to be in business,” said Pape.

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