• Mary MacCarthy

What's it like to work for Instacart during the pandemic?

Updated: May 6

With an estimated 316 million Americans under “stay-at-home” orders, the demand for grocery delivery services has surged over the past few weeks. I wanted to know what it's like to be delivering groceries these days, so I reached out to Instacart “shoppers" on online forums. A shopper who lives in a city south of Seattle kindly agreed to speak to me, if I agreed to not use his real name - so I'm calling him "Michael."

My conversation with Michael reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with Uber and Lyft drivers over the past couple of years: working for these app-based services seems like a convenient way to make money, but the reality is quite different. The apps are not easy to use (at first, anyway), and they seem to be driven by algorithms and ratings systems that work in favor of the corporation and not the worker. Michael also expresses concerns that are specific to Covid-19 - a crisis that, he says, Instacart is profiting from without doing anything to protect the workers. HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? Well I’m going to use this opportunity to vent! But first, I’ll tell you why I started at Instacart. I used to be a commercial fisherman, but the last couple of years were not very productive, with my earnings dropping by about 75%. Around that time my wife started a full-time job at a university… So I used that opportunity to change paths. I could spend more time taking care of our two kids (11 and 12 years old), and I also started working evenings and weekends at a restaurant in Seattle. At the restaurant, I was working Friday and Saturday nights, plus a double-shift on Sundays - a total of 28 hours. But when Covid-19 arrived, they started reducing my hours… From 28, down to twelve. I had started working for Instacart just awhile before demand for grocery delivery services started to rise in my area. The first month I struggled mightily just trying to figure out the app. If you turn down an order, they kind of “reprimand” you. Some days I was averaging just $10 an hour, before the cost of gas. Now - with the demand so much higher due to Covid - I’m averaging $25 an hour. But I can’t devote as much time to it, since my two kids are home from school all day. Instacart is making hand over fist right now.! And yet the tech support - for us the shoppers - is non-existent. There’s no way I can contact them. They used to have a button with a set of headphones, you could click on that to call or chat with someone who would help you - they used to be pretty prompt. Then, the wait went up to two hours. Then they eliminated the option of actually talking to a human being for help. This creates tough situations for shoppers. For example, one day the cashier was ringing up the groceries for an order. She missed the bar code, and I had already clicked “next.” This means that the groceries were not paid for by the app, and there was nothing I could do - unless I waited two hours or more to get through to Instacart tech support! So I just paid for the customer’s groceries by myself. My sister is a personal shopper at a big grocery chain and she’s seen the same thing happen - where an Instacart shopper ends up paying for the groceries! In my case, I haven’t yet been able to get a refund. After about a month I finally got a call back from Instacart, but all they said was “you have to get your refund on the app” - the app that keeps denying my refund!. Now, they’re trying to say the incident was too long ago. I mean, they’re keeping my money, which isn’t legal. By the way, for customers - good luck getting in contact with Instacart, too. For customers the wait on the phone is just as long. Instacart is really neglecting its responsibilities, even though - from what I’ve seen in my area - demand is at least three or four times higher than a month ago. Meanwhile, they have announced they want to hire 300,000 workers. But they’re not taking care of the people who work for them already! They don’t care about people’s lives. I’m just working the minimum number of orders I need to pay our bills. I spend most of the day with the kids, trying to get them to do their lessons and do some reading, then feed them. They’re old enough to be left alone at home a bit, so I usually head out to shop before my wife arrives home - she gets home late because she has a long commute from Seattle. There’s evenings that I hardly see my wife. Which isn’t easy - it does create some tension.

[I asked Michael some follow-up questions, starting with: has Instacart offered any guidance on how to avoid catching or spreading Covid-19?] Absolutely not. There’s a bit on the website encouraging social distancing and hand washing. The strike last week was calling for $5 per order in “hazard pay.” That’s never gonna happen. They did say they might give us masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. For me, I’m fortunate to already have my own supply of those. They finally agreed to get us hand sanitizer - that was ten days ago - but every time I request some, they say it’s out of stock. And there's been no sign of the masks and gloves they mentioned.

Illustration by Moira MacCarthy

[What are your feelings about working near the “Ground Zero” of Covid-19 in the U.S. - since the first major outbreak in the U.S. was close to Seattle?] Obviously, I don’t want to get sick. My wife has been insistent about wearing masks. I’m taking all the precautions. But there’s no guarantee. You can be exposed so easily - even when you're pumping your gas. I would say that Washington state is the model to follow in the U.S. We were the first to really shut down due to Covid-19 - but there can still be people spreading it here.

When I go out, I’m careful. I didn’t catch it today, but I might tomorrow. For me, I’m shopping for Instacart because I need income right now. But I completely resent the people who own it and control it. [What about customers - what has your interaction with them been like?] They’re very respectful of social distancing… A lot of people now are simply not even opening the door, they might look out the front window and tap and wave. Some customers are tipping more generously… I did a liquor delivery where I got a $100 tip - basically it took me an hour to make $100. There’s been a few like that, and those make me ecstatic. But not everyone can do that, and that’s ok. I understand that a lot of people are struggling, and they need to use the service now so they can stay safe at home.

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