Instacart worker strike stalls some Bay Area grocery deliveries

During the Bay Area’s mandated coronavirus shelter-in-place, many people who cannot or do not want to go to a grocery store are turning to Instacart to deliver their groceries. The app, which allows users to order delivery goods online from local stores, relies on thousands of independent contractors to drive to the store, shop for the groceries and drop the delivery off at the user’s home. Many of Instacart’s contractors, which they call “shoppers,” staged a strike on Monday in response to a lack of hazard pay and personal protection equipment and insufficient coronavirus sick leave. 

While Instacart maintains that the strike had “absolutely no impact to Instacart’s operations,” shoppers said that they saw some impact on the quantity and pay of available orders to deliver on Monday. As of 4 p.m. in the East Bay, KTVU could not successfully place an order on Instacart from any local grocery stores.

“I think it’s working; there’s a lot of orders that are lingering a lot longer, and I think they tried to raise the order’s pay today to convince people not to strike,” said Michelle Thomas, who has worked as a shopper part-time for two years. “Because yesterday there were really low orders all day, and then today, all of a sudden there’s $70 orders, $80 orders.”

Amanda Church, who had been an on-and-off shopper with Instacart since 2015, said that she hadn’t worked for the app in about a year, and was considering starting up again because her business was negatively impacted by coronavirus. She said that due to the strike, she decided against beginning to work for the app again, and that she thinks many people simply can’t afford to strike. 

Without a union, she said, the people who most need to work for the money won’t view striking as an option. When some workers staged a strike last fall, she said that her mother, who is also an Instacart shopper, had to keep working during the scheduled strike because she needed the money.

“The only way to really make the changes is for someone to organize the shoppers and create some kind of union,” Church said. 

Instacart shopper Jacqueline, who has been working with Instacart for 8 months, said that she believes that many new shoppers, who either desperately need the money, or do not know about the strike, are working through the strike. 

“I see a lot of new hires that are just taking and grabbing them (the orders) without thinking or you know, factoring in everything,” Jacqueline said.

The strike comes one week after Instacart’s Founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta announced that the company would hire 300,000 new contractors to handle the increased demand of the virus. 

“Today, we saw 40% more shoppers on the platform compared to the same day and time last week,” an Instacart representative said in a statement to KTVU via email. “Over the last 72 hours, more groceries were sold on our platform than ever before. In the last week alone, 250,000 new people signed up to become Instacart full-service shoppers and 50,000 of them have already started shopping on the platform."

Jacqueline, who is a single mother, relies solely on gig jobs for her entire income. She also works with Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates. 

She said she intended to participate in the strike, but ended up taking an order from a family she was familiar with, who she knew would leave a good tip.

“This morning I told myself, ‘I'm not gonna go to work,’ but this morning I saw a customer which I’ve known; I’ve delivered to them before, so I did go out to assist them...I felt and the pay was quite high, but it was all dependent on customer tip.”

Instacart presents shoppers an estimate of how much money they will make per trip, based on the “Instacart Payment” and an expected tip. 

Shoppers expressed frustration with the “Instacart Payment” for deliveries, the math for which is not presented to shoppers, as well as a policy which allows users a 3-day window to retract tips that they give shoppers.

Many shoppers said that they are also unsatisfied with Instacart’s support communication with them, which some characterized as slow, difficult to navigate and lacking transparency. 

Maria, a recent college graduate and Instacart shopper, said that she is participating in the strike because she lives with her grandparents, and does not feel comfortable risking her health or their health for a small amount of money--she usually can get $10 to $20 for trips in her area.

“$15 for my health, it's just not worth it,” she said.

But not all workers agree with the strike.

Jessica, who has been working with Instacart for 4 years as a partial source of income, said that she doesn’t agree with the strike because she feels that contract jobs do not exist in the same realm as full-time jobs, and that contract jobs do not need to provide hazard pay, sick pay or vacation. 

She said that her opinion is informed by the fact that she also has a full-time job with benefits, and that she only works with Instacart on a part-time basis. Jessica added that people who work with Instacart shouldn’t treat it as a full-time job.

“Instacart shoppers feel that they should be entitled to hazard pay and they've been deemed as an essential worker; they haven't been forced to go home like everybody else,” Jessica said. “...or in the event that they do get sick, they’re entitled to sick pay. I don't feel that's the case and I feel they’re pushing a dangerous line.”

The Gig Worker’s Collective, an organization of gig workers started by Vanessa Bain, the first prominent Instacart organizer, wrote in a Medium post on Monday that Instacart’s public statements about the strike do not demonstrate the reality of their organizing. 

“We know this is false,” the Collective wrote. “We know delivery windows are impacted, we can see it in the app for ourselves. We know their PR team is scrambling to mitigate the damage that has been caused to Instacart’s reputation.”

Before the strike, Instacart issued a statement outlining their response, which included sending workers hand sanitizer, and automatically suggesting users leave a 10% tip. The tip remains subject to users’ choice.