Why Instacart Shoppers Are Striking Despite Being Essential Workers During Coronavirus Pandemic

Instacart shoppers are demanding additional benefits like hazard pay and paid sick leave now that they have been deemed essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Instacart shoppers are demanding additional benefits like hazard pay and paid sick leave now that they have been deemed essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. (Getty)

As more and more Americans self-quarantine, grocery delivery services like Instacart have become more and more popular. While companies are quick to tout their employees as “heroes” during the coronavirus pandemic, many shoppers complain their wages and working conditions have only worsened as they continue to potentially expose themselves to disease.  

That’s why some Instacart shoppers decided to strike.  

“They are putting us directly in harm’s way while profiting greatly. We cannot let this be considered normal,” read a manifesto by Gig Workers Collective, a non-profit group that organizes collective action among gig economy workers.

They called for all Instacart shoppers to stop taking orders Monday.

Mercedes Maltese, of Shelby Township, Michigan has been a shopper for Instacart for three years. She used to work for them anywhere between 40 to 100 hours a week, only scaling back in the last few months to a couple of orders here and there after getting full-time work elsewhere.

She told InsideEdition.com she was participating in the strike because Instacart "ruined my whole life."

“You don’t make any money,” Maltese said. “I started working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, living in my car, pissing on the side of it, just trying to scrape by and pay my rent and I couldn’t even pay my rent anymore. I got into a fight at Kroger and got arrested. It ruined my relationships. I put hundreds of miles on my car, had to pay for gas on my own. At the end of the day, did I make anything?”

She first began working for Instacart when the service arrived in Michigan, and felt she could make a steady income doing gigs for them for a standard 40 hours a week. “Not a dream job, but it paid the bills,” Maltese said. “But the pay kept getting lower and lower and I had to work more and more.

“We weren’t appreciated before and we’re really not appreciated now,” she said.

Hundreds of posts in the Facebook group "Instacart Shoppers (National)" added to her claim, and even more grievances arose related to health concerns while working with Instacart amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I walked off because there are no real safety measures put in place for shoppers,” one Instacart shopper posted on Facebook. “I was never able to obtain masks despite reaching out to hundreds of medical suppliers. How are we on the front line providing essential grocery delivery services suppose[d] to protect ourselves?”

Many workers were also concerned that the pay structure had changed over the years, and as a result shoppers earned less. Instacart also began lumping several deliveries together in response to the influx of orders, but shoppers were not seeing an increase in pay proportional to their additional work, they said.

“For the last two weeks … I noticed the pay was going down and the workload was going up,” Instacart shopper Tracey Ufheil told InsideEdition.com. “I also noticed even after a perfect shop and experience with a customer, my tips were disappearing or being slashed,” she said. Instacart's policy dictates that despite tips being included in the amount shoppers are told they would be paid when they agree to taking the job, a customer is able to change the tip amount several days after the groceries are delivered, she said. 

Ufheil, of St. Louis County, Missouri, said she refuses to work until hazard pay, sick leave pay and antibacterial hand sanitizer are provided to shoppers.

She and others like her cheered each other on in the group, posting photos of what they say was their lack of income that day from the company, but the response seems to be divided. Many others in the group bragged that with less shoppers, they were able to pick up the more sought-after gigs.

Instacart said in a statement that they saw "absolutely no impact" from the collective action and that "over the last 72 hours, more groceries were sold on our platform than ever before." They also said 250,000 new people signed up to be full-service shoppers and 50,000 have already started picking up gigs on the platform. 

But Instacart did insist they would be changing conditions shortly after Gig Workers Collective declared the strike.

“The health and safety of our entire community — shoppers, customers, and employees — is our first priority. Our goal is to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers, while also proactively taking the appropriate precautionary measures to operate safely. We want to underscore that we absolutely respect the rights of shoppers to provide us feedback and voice their concerns," Instacart said in a statement provided to InsideEdition.com. "It’s a valuable way for us to continuously make improvements to the shopper experience and we’re committed to supporting this important community during this critical time."

They also outlined the specific benefits they are extending to their shoppers, including bonuses, making hand sanitizer available for shoppers and offering up to 14 days of extended pay for all in-store shoppers and full-service shoppers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in individual mandatory isolation or quarantine, as directed by a local, state or public health authority.

But many shoppers still say these new benefits are impossible to receive.

“I emailed about hand sanitizer that they have told the media they would be supplying us, yet is not available,” an Instacart shopper said, including an email that appears to say that hand sanitizers would not be available until mid-April. Many other shoppers agreed, including their own screenshots of the out-of-stock hand sanitizers, or saying they ran into various problems when attempting to order it.

A spokesperson for Instacart told InsideEdition.com they are updating their inventory daily and are adding thousands of units as supplies come in.

Some shoppers who claimed they were exposed to the novel coronavirus while working an Instacart gig said they ran into trouble trying to access their promised benefits.

“You would need a signed letter from Dr. Fauci himself to have a chance at that pay,” one shopper said of paid time off.

Ufheil explained that the lack of sick leave pay could become detrimental to not only the workers but also to the customers.

“The customer needs to realize that if I’m not able to take the necessary precautions, I could be bringing that virus directly to their home,” she said. “I have the luxury of being able to stay home … but I can guarantee you that there are going to be Instacart shoppers out there that shop after they start to feel sick because they don’t have [sick leave pay].”

Instacart customer Lauren Goldberg, 29, of Brooklyn, shared Ufheil’s concern.

“I worry that the people bringing this food might have coronavirus and might not be able to stay home if they’re sick. It risks exposing people at home who are immune-compromised,” she told InsideEdition.com. “People are at risk when the workers aren’t getting paid.”

Goldberg is self-quarantined with her partner, who she says has Ehlers-Danolos syndrome, and neither have left the home since mid-March for fear of contracting the coronavirus. They are also diligent in cleaning any items they have delivered before bringing it into the home.

She explained that she has written to Instacart in the past in support of their shoppers and will not cross any picket lines. Yet she cannot help but be concerned with how the changing scene of grocery delivery will affect her well-being.

“The workers do deserve their demands," she said. "As someone who really needs the service to keep me and my partner safe, I want to make sure the workers are safe and the workers are able to get paid for the incredible work they’re doing."

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