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Credit: Bijou Karman
personal essay

Bad Pay, Long Hours, and a Little Hope: How Instacart Shoppers Feel About Their Jobs Right Now

published Apr 4, 2020
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I live more than 2,400 miles from my 69-year-old father who lives alone. He works as a hospital janitor and is currently working many hours overtime due to COVID-19. By the time he wakes up each afternoon, he only has a few hours before it’s time to gear up for work again. Because of this — and because of the great number of people stockpiling supplies — my dad couldn’t find groceries in his area and didn’t have the time to drive from store-to-store and wait in hour-long lines. Plus, as someone who was over 65 and already did the risky work of cleaning a hospital, it wasn’t safe for him to be cramped into close quarters with frantic strangers scrambling for their 57th pack of toilet paper. 

The only thing I could think to do was place an Instacart order for my dad on March 14 and hope that it actually showed up. I agonized over whether it was ethical to send a gig worker to Costco during a pandemic (and I’m not alone, this piece from The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull gets at the heart of many of these thorny ethical issues). Was I putting someone in harm’s way? Was I helping them financially with a good tip? And how do grocery shoppers feel about their jobs right now, anyway? 

Before COVID-19 hit, we already heavily depended on gig workers — to take us to airports, deliver us food, walk our dogs, and perform household chores. Now, they are quite literally our lifelines. Gig workers are considered freelancers and have few protections like guaranteed wages, sick pay, and health care.

Grocery store shoppers and other gig workers are navigating an impossible situation: Shopping for others puts them at risk, but they need the income. Making matters worse, shoppers report that they aren’t given basic protections (personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and healthcare), which is why Instacart workers launched a strike on Monday to demand increased pay and more stringent safety precautions. (Instacart announced Thursday it will soon begin providing full-service shoppers with health and safety kits containing a reusable cloth face mask, hand sanitizer, and a thermometer.)

Billy Lewis Jr., an Instacart shopper in Long Island, told me that striking with other shoppers is “necessary.” Many shoppers are just trying to make enough money for gas and groceries for themselves, Lewis said, and instead they’re having to use the money they earn from Instacart to purchase their own masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer so they don’t get sick while making deliveries.  

“At a time when there is such a huge demand and [Instacart] is clearly going to make millions of dollars profiting off of a global pandemic, the least they can do is make sure the people making the money for them are protected in some way,” Lewis said. “I’m hoping the company comes around sooner rather than later because people need their groceries right now, especially people with disabilities and the elderly. They shouldn’t have to suffer.”

Tatiana (a pseudonym), an UberEats driver and Instacart shopper, couldn’t afford to strike because she has a child to support and gig work is her only income. “The short of it is that you need money, so you need to work,” she said. “And this is work.”

Grocery store shoppers and other gig workers are navigating an impossible situation: Shopping for others puts them at risk, but they need the income.

A few of the shoppers I spoke to for this piece never went back to work after mid-March because the work became too overwhelming and they didn’t want to get at-risk loved ones sick. 

Jenn Lord Paluzzi, a Massachusetts-based journalist, worked as an Instacart shopper for extra money. We spoke on her final day as a shopper on March 16. The shopping lists she was getting were “out of control,” sometimes 200+ items long, and she didn’t want to make her elderly parents sick right before the state moved to go on lockdown. 

Leigh (a pseudonym) also stopped shopping in mid-March. Her husband suffers from asthma and she didn’t want to risk his health to continue working a gig job. The decision hurt her financially — and she’s worried that when the pandemic quiets down, there may not be a gig job to come back to.

“I’m concerned they may retaliate against shoppers who have stopped shopping during the shelter-in-place order,” Leigh said, admitting there’d be no way to know for sure. “With gig jobs, it’s easier to chalk up less work opportunities to app algorithms.” 

Despite the working conditions they have faced, Tatiana, Leigh, and Paluzzi said they don’t judge people using services like Instacart during the pandemic, but their herculean efforts to deliver people the goods they need isn’t worth the pay. 

“There are a lot of operations issues right now. A store may not have half the stuff that the app says it does and customers are getting upset because it’s taking so long and because they’re not getting half the stuff they ordered. There is no way to provide exceptional customer service right now,” Tatiana said. “As a shopper, I’m paying for gas out of pocket, sometimes going 20 miles one-way. A single shopping trip can take a couple of hours. At a place like Costco, there is a line around the block and it’s people stacked on top of people.” 

While some customers are tipping generously — Leigh received a $100 tip during her last week — that’s more  an aberration than the norm. When talking to me on her last day shopping, Paluzzi became incredulous when she described the moment she saw a neighbor asking on Facebook whether she should be tipping Instacart shoppers. 

“If someone is delivering groceries to your door you tip them. This is especially true during a pandemic. Tip your shopper!” Paluzzi yelled into the phone. “If you’re going to get upset or refuse to tip me because I tried to give you the regular milk — which is the only thing left in the store — and you’re only used to drinking organic milk from cows never touched by human hands? You’re a truly horrible person. I just need people to remember there’s an actual person on the other end of the app.”

I anxiously waited five days for my dad’s Instacart order to arrive at his home in Downey, CA. The shopping service was overwhelmed, and it was taking days to fulfill orders.

I was worried everything would be out of stock and all of the items would be refunded. But a lovely woman named Naomi braved a local Costco and got almost every item on my dad’s list. She communicated with me the entire time, asking me what she could get to replace black beans and if roasted turkey would suffice in place of the chicken that had been decimated by shoppers. I said yes to it all, crying into my phone. 

I don’t know if there was any way for Naomi to understand the service she performed for my dad or the way she enabled me to feel helpful in a time when I have felt absolutely powerless, just as there was no way for me to fully understand the risk she took to deliver my father’s food.

My dad is now cleaning hospital rooms where people with COVID-19 have received care. Each morning when he gets home from work, I make him call me. We have had a lot of conversations about how strange it feels to him, to go from lowly janitor to “essential worker” overnight. I imagine there are many gig workers who feel the same.

When we make it through this dark time, I hope we remember that when so many of our systems failed us and failed to protect us, it was the people we once dismissed as low-skilled labor who didn’t let us down. The people who do our shopping and who deliver our meals; the grocery store clerks and the farmworkers. And people like my dad. We are all depending on each other for survival. This has always been the case. We just didn’t realize it before.