source: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

For the past 5 years, shoppers have repeatedly sounded the alarm regarding Instacart’s misappropriation of tips, theft of tips, unsafe working conditions, continuous and increasingly devastating pay cuts, and more. Instacart responded by completely ignoring the concerns of its shoppers, retaliating against shoppers for speaking out, or offering extremely minimal tokens of appeasement accompanied by insincere apologies for its actions. In July, shoppers’ were optimistic for better treatment when Instacart hired a new CEO, Fidji Simo. That optimism, however, was short-lived, and it has become abundantly clear that Instacart remains true to its morally corrupt nature and will never do right by its shoppers. While Fidji made a great public show of offering shoppers the opportunity to communicate their concerns directly to her via what she represented to be her “personal” email address, she has given short shrift to the shoppers who responded by either completely ignoring their emails or offering mere canned responses. Indeed, our letter to Fidji was ignored. Fidji’s blatantly disingenuous offer to work with shoppers only served to irrefutably establish that Instacart’s change in leadership did not change how it treats its ever-growing and increasingly vulnerable workforce. Since Fidji became CEO, pay and working conditions have sunk to an all-time low.

Shoppers call upon every customer to delete the Instacart app immediately as a show of support for shoppers’ ongoing efforts to end Instacart’s long-standing practice of gig worker exploitation. We are asking customers to delete the app today — because there is only one thing Instacart and its executives and investors care about: money. And we ask that customers refrain from reinstalling the app unless and until Instacart rectifies the genuinely inequitable manner in which it treats its shoppers. Specifically, we ask for customers to stand with us and demand Instacart do the following:

  1. Instacart shoppers must be paid by order, and not by batch. In 2019, when Apoorva Mehta publicly apologized for supplementing pay with tips in response to our protests, the company lowered the base pay floor from $10 to $7. But that’s not even the worst part — that $7 figure could cover up to three orders at once. If we shopped a single order, the base pay would be $7, but if we shopped three orders at once, the base pay would be $7 for the lot. Instead of a shopper fulfilling three orders for a total of $30 base, we now do it for a $7 base. This is effectively a 76% cut to base pay, and is unacceptable.
  2. Instacart must re-introduce item commission. When Instacart lowered our base pay, it also removed item commission. The $7 base pay was supposed to be a floor that would raise depending on the size of the order. However, nearly every order now pays $7 regardless of the size. A single two item order pays $7, and a triple 50 item order pays $7. Item commission ensures that workers are paid for their time, since the more items that are in the order, the longer it takes to fill.
  3. Instacart’s rating system can no longer unfairly punish shoppers for issues outside their control. For example, the company has an issue with customer fraud that is unfairly impacting workers. Instacart’s lacking fraud detection ability and policies make it very easy for customers to get free groceries by falsely marking items as missing/damaged, with the blame constantly falling on the shopper. Even when we provide photos of deliveries, Instacart can either lower our rating (which prevents us from seeing good offers for weeks), or deactivate us from the platform entirely. A single 4-star rating is enough to affect our pay for weeks. There’s even a Facebook group of 2,000 of these shoppers, the majority of who were deactivated for this reason. Instacart’s inability to properly investigate customer complaints should not result in blame unfairly placed on shoppers.
  4. Instacart shoppers need occupational death benefits. Working for Instacart is not safe, and workers must be protected on the job. The last 18 months have been especially dangerous for Instacart shoppers. The company refused to provide sick pay for shoppers who tested positive for COVID, even when one shopper was on a ventilator. We had to walk off the job in order for Instacart to address this and change their policy. Coronavirus aside, shopper Lynn Murray was killed while shopping for a customer during a mass shooting. While Instacart’s corporate employees spent these last 18 months working from home, shoppers were risking their lives while the company did nothing to protect them. Instead, they quadrupled their workforce with desperate people in need of income, using them to bring down pay and replace any shopper who knew their worth.
  5. The default tip must be raised to at least 10% for every single order. Instacart has been playing with our tips since 2016 — first replacing them with a service fee that the company said went to us (even though they pocketed it), then outright stealing our tips, then using tips to supplement pay, and more recently testing out a user interface without a default tip set. Instacart shoppers are bleeding out of both ends — the base pay is now far lower than it has been AND the company is discouraging customers from tipping. A 5% default tip is abysmal when paired with Instacart’s low pay.

Asking customers to delete the Instacart app in the midst of a pandemic is not something we take lightly. We understand that, for some customers, this will be a significant sacrifice. But we have spent the past five years fighting for better working conditions and firmly believe we have exhausted all less drastic options. Time and time again, Instacart has acknowledged its misdeeds and repeatedly made promises to treat its shoppers fairly, but, as is the case in most abusive relationships, those promises of change always prove to be empty. It is now abundantly clear that Instacart has no intention to ever do right by its shoppers, and, with each iteration of abuse, we only struggle more. The only reasonable conclusion is that Instacart’s corporate DNA is utterly void of an iota of integrity. Continuing to utilize Instacart’s services would only enable its unethical behavior, endorse its continued exploitation of workers, and reward its corporate greed.

While we believe that the roots of Instacart’s unethical corporate culture can be traced back to its founder, Apoorva Mehta, and the venture capitalists who invested millions of dollars in a bet that worker exploitation would provide a windfall return, it has been wholeheartedly adopted by and, indeed, escalated and compounded by its entire corporate team. For instance, it was Instacart’s engineers who allowed Instacart to replace a transparent pay system with one governed by secretive black box algorithmically driven pay scales. Those same engineers allowed shoppers’ tips to be stolen by Instacart for months and months. They calibrated Instacart’s algorithm to generate pay as low as $1.50 per order and to bundle several orders together all for the cost of one. And it was Instacart’s PR team that decided to lie to all the journalists who would ask about pay cuts, stolen tips, and the company’s poor treatment of workers.

And the corporate employees’ adoption of Instacart’s shopper exploitation business model is so deeply rooted as to cause them to lose all sense of irony. For example, an overwhelming majority of Instacart’s shoppers are women, and many of those women are also students, caretakers, and single mothers. And it is no secret that even while they’ve been a vital part of making certain your families were fed, those shoppers were rationing food and having to resort to public assistance programs to put food on their own tables. Though she had been fully informed of the struggles faced by the predominantly-female shopper workforce, Instacart’s Chief Communications Officer, Dani Dudeck, had the audacity to brag in an interview about how she used her position to champion other women in the workplace, describing herself as someone who “advocates for strong and supportive culture for women.” These statements were a massive slap in the face of each and every struggling female shopper and further proves Instacart is irreparably corrupted.

Whether it be by affirmative action, blind adoption, or a failure of moral courage, each and every corporate employee of Instacart is firmly complicit in its exploitation of its shoppers, and to what end? We suppose the answer lies in the fact that many of them stand to make millions of dollars from Instacart’s pending IPO.

Instacart didn’t accidentally trip and fall into its exploitative character. It is the deliberate architect of its corporate culture and all of its calculated and intentional actions reflect the blueprint it drafted. Each pay cut and shopper-exploitive tweak to its operations have happened by design and with the affirmative consent and active participation of engineers, designers, public relations personnel, human resources professionals, in-house counsel, and high and low-level executives, all vying to become rich when Instacart finally goes public.

Over the last 5 years, Instacart has been relentlessly gutting shoppers’ wages, exploiting its improperly classified workforce, and outright stealing shoppers’ wages and tips on its path to its highly anticipated public offering. Instacart shoppers have spent these past 5 years organizing, crowdsourcing data, working with legislators and city and state attorneys, and speaking out about Instacart’s exploitative business model to all who will listen. We have even walked off of our jobs several times in last-ditch efforts to address pay issues and to draw attention to significant worker safety concerns. While these efforts have garnered some public attention and a few meaningful concessions from Instacart, every inch of progress has been followed by an act of retribution by Instacart in the form of harsher austerity measures. It has become abundantly clear that Instacart is not merely indifferent to our struggles and concerns, but is actively working to sabotage and punish us in response to our demands for fair and equitable treatment. Instacart is currently working on an anti-worker bill in Massachusetts and ultimately wants to replace their workforce with robots.

Here is a timeline. It’s long, just like our 5-year fight:

Prior to September 2016, customers compiled their electronic grocery list, headed to their virtual checkout, and encountered a tip defaulting to 10% of the receipt total of their order. Those tips were then paid in full to the shoppers. In September 2016, however, Instacart notified shoppers by email that it would “no longer be collecting tips online.” What Instacart failed to disclose in this email was that tips from customers to shoppers were being replaced by a service fee payable to Instacart. That service fee was an identical-looking input that defaulted to a percentage of the order and was adjustable in exactly the same way that tips previously were. Thus, Instacart was removing in-app tipping to shoppers and replacing it with a service fee that went directly into Instacart’s pockets. Moreover, Instacart announced the change to customers with language that disingenuously implied that the “service fee” would be paid directly to their shoppers.

Although Instacart simultaneously promised shoppers a “significantly higher guaranteed commission,” the increase in the guaranteed commission did not begin to offset the loss of income from customer tips. This was also the first time that Instacart experimented with fluctuations in pay based on projected algorithmic demand. Instacart shoppers were struggling to make ends meet, well-intentioned customers were now tipping the company instead of the shopper, and Instacart’s income was burgeoning.

Shoppers didn’t take these changes laying down. Upon receiving notice that our earnings would be gutted and the tips we previously relied upon grifted, shoppers across the country began organizing in response. In October of 2016, shoppers staged a two-day walk-off from our jobs to demand in-app tipping be reinstated. While we were ultimately successful and Instacart reinstated in-app tips, it referred to the shopper’s tip as an “additional tip”(continuing to make it appear the service fee was a tip paid to shoppers), made it difficult for customers to add a tip for their shoppers, and maintained its 10% service fee front and center.

This debacle was most shoppers’ first introduction to Instacart’s gaslighting, everything-bad-is-actually-good-for-you tactics. But it certainly was not the last time shopper’s experienced this treatment. For Instacart not only continued to engage in conduct detrimental to the wellbeing of shoppers, it exponentially ramped up its exploitation over time.

Instacart’s sights were clearly set on shopper’s tips, and, in particular, how it could misappropriate those tips for itself. The service fee was the first attempt, but certainly not the last iteration of Instacart’s shady scheme.

By 2017, Instacart had capitulated on in-app tipping, but continued dial down commissions. Shoppers’ commissions fluctuated every day and were entirely subject to the whims of whatever Instacart deemed the demand was for that day, a pay structure that Instacart dubbed “dynamic pay.” On days Instacart deemed “high-demand,” shoppers earned higher commissions, and on days where the demand was low, shoppers’ commissions were often lower than they were before the introduction of this dynamic pay structure. Month-after-month commissions dwindled while Instacart continued to collect its “optional” service fee from customers. Instacart continued to imply the service fee went directly to shoppers, and, thus, continued intentionally misleading customers into tipping the company instead of the Shopper.

It was clear to shoppers, that despite its claims to the contrary, the service fee did not result in higher average commissions for Shoppers. It also became clear that while customers still believed they were tipping Shoppers in the app, tips became a significantly less predictable and reliable means of subsidizing pay from Instacart. Shoppers had no choice but to continue to organize and fight back. Paying out of our own pockets, we produced materials shoppers could provide to their customers to educate them about Instacart’s disinformation about its service fee. We ran a campaign called “waive and save,” informing customers of their right to waive the service fee and how to leave a proper tip that went directly to their Shopper. In response, Instacart established a mandatory fixed 5% service fee, and cut 10% tip defaults down to 5%, essentially splitting the 10% expected surcharge between the company and Shoppers to reduce sticker shock at checkout.

Despite our best efforts to educate our customers, shoppers were still receiving fewer tips than they previously had. Shoppers began to see discrepancies between what customers reported to tip, and what they actually received. We investigated these discrepancies and were able to crowdsource enough evidence to conclusively prove Instacart was misappropriating tips. After being presented with irrefutable evidence of its misconduct in February 2018, Instacart conceded that it had withheld tips inappropriately, but claimed it was due to a “software glitch.” Instacart promised it would return misappropriated tips to shoppers and vowed the purported software issue had been fixed. Though Instacart claimed to have repaid all misappropriated tips, it never submitted to an independent audit or provided documentation that it had actually done so.

Shortly after this scandal, Instacart rolled out an under-the-radar pilot program for a new pay structure in Boulder, Colorado. This pay structure marked the first time Instacart experimented with an entirely algorithmic-generated approach to pay. While dynamic pay had its obvious faults and pay had reached an all-time low, the actual rates of pay and the means by which those rates were calculated were still clearly established and published prior to scheduling. Under the new model, the pay was generated by a secret, proprietary algorithm with undisclosed variables that led to even more drastic variations in pay. The algorithm often generated offers that were obscenely low, and shoppers in Boulder were notably unhappy with this new pay structure. Those shoppers could not discern any rhyme or reason to why orders paid what they paid, and this new “pilot” pay schedule removed whatever transparency was left under the dynamic pay model. Despite the intense degree of dissatisfaction reported by shoppers in Boulder, Instacart opted to expand this pilot program to two additional markets in California, Orange County, and Sacramento. As more shoppers became subject to the mercy of Instacart’s black-box algorithm, the reports of obscenely low pay skyrocketed.

Shoppers once again crowdsourced screenshots of payouts and captured examples of shockingly low pay, sometimes dropping under $1.50 per order. Pressed by journalists, Instacart responded in its typical caught-with-its-hand-in-the-cookie-jar fashion, claiming these offers were “edge cases” or “glitches.” When Instacart signaled its intentions of rolling out this pay model nationwide despite the significant number of “edge cases” and “glitches,” we knew we had to respond with the full force of collective action to resist. In late 2018, ahead of the national rollout, we called upon shoppers to participate in a perpetual soft-strike to oppose the new, entirely inequitable pay structure. In response, Instacart announced it would implement a $10 per batch minimum. But, as is always the case with Instacart, this seeming concession to its workforce came with a catch, The catch was that Instacart would factor tips into this minimum and use the tips from customers to offset its own contributions to shopper pay. This meant if a customer tipped a shopper $5, Instacart would only have to pay that shopper $5 to meet the $10 minimum. If a customer tipped a shopper $9, Instacart paid that Shopper $1. Thus, once again, customers effectively were tipping Instacart instead of their shopper. Tips essentially had no net impact on our overall earnings under this pay structure, and — yet again — Instacart was pocketing the tips the customers thought they were paying to their shoppers.

Working collectively, shoppers established our own pay floors and pledged to reject any offers that fell below them. In doing so, we aimed to not only ensure we were paid fairly but also to calibrate the algorithm itself. When an offer was rejected a sufficient number of times as it approached its expected delivery window, the algorithm would increase the pay on the subsequent offer to the next shopper. Our hope was that if a critical mass of shoppers routinely rejected offers falling below a set standard, the algorithm would begin to present shoppers with higher offers. We captured and documented these increases once again through crowdsourcing, and were able to establish that our soft-strike was working and resulted in higher per-batch earnings for shoppers.

In January 2019, a post about a shopper who spent over an hour shopping and delivering an order that grossed him only $0.80 in earnings from Instacart went viral. With its deceptive conduct under public review, Instacart began to experience negative feedback from its customers and the general public. When this public pressure was added to the push-back it was experiencing from its shoppers, Instacart was forced to walk back this pay structure and return the tips it had — once again — stolen from its shoppers. In February, Instacart’s CEO, Apoorva Mehta, publicly apologized to shoppers and customers and promised that Instacart would reimburse shoppers for all of their tips that it had diverted to its own accounts. As is its pattern, this public mea culpa was accompanied by an act of retribution by Instacart. Simultaneously with the announcement that it would return the misappropriated tips and discontinue the practice of using tips to subsidize its contributions to pay, Instacart announced it would once again be restructuring pay. This time Instacart reduced the batch pay guaranteed to shoppers to a mere $7.00, amounting to a 30% pay cut without any prior notice.

By March of 2019, shoppers regularly were earning only $7.00 per batch, even for batches that included shopping and delivery for up to 3 separate customers. As a result, shoppers were earning a mere fraction of what they previously earned, and the loss in earnings was compounded further by the fact that Instacart had cut the default tip in the app in half.

In October 2019, shoppers began planning yet another protest, culminating in a three-day walkout in November 2019. Shoppers demanded Instacart reinstate the previous 10% tip default in the app and discontinue its intentionally confusing service fee. Shoppers were bleeding out of both ends — Instacart’s pay was getting slashed in half and the defaulted tip was 50% less than when most shoppers signed up. While the walk-out gained significant traction, Instacart failed to communicate with shoppers or to address the underlying demands in any meaningful way. Instead, Instacart’s instinctual response was to retaliate. Rather than acknowledge the real concerns of shoppers or work with them toward finding a mutually satisfactory resolution, Instacart chose to punish its shoppers by removing the very last service-based bonus. Instacart’s action immediately reduced earnings opportunities per order by another 30%. The message Instacart intended to deliver to its shoppers was clear: “We have no interest in treating you with respect or paying you fairly. If you dare speak up, organize, or demand better, you will discover just how draconian we will be in responding to any effort to end our exploitation of you workers.” In addition, Instacart tirelessly worked to quell any future organizing efforts by pitting non-organizing workers against those workers who were organizing for better treatment. It did so by averring over and over again that it was the organizing workers — and not Instacart — who was responsible for the pay cuts. Again, a comparison to an abusive relationship is almost unavoidable: The abuser almost always claims that the disempowered caused them to act abusively.

Typically, the longer you work for a company, the more money you make. But the longer Instacart shoppers work for the company, the more their pay declines. Shoppers who were once bringing home a fair income were now applying for food stamps and other public assistance programs while still working full time. Shoppers who once brought their children to daycare prior to working were now quietly bringing their children along with them while shopping because they could no longer afford daycare due to Instacart’s pervasive pay cuts.

When the pandemic hit in early March 2020, most companies and individuals experienced significant hardships. Not Instacart. Indeed, the pandemic was a boon to Instacart and the company was determined to exploit the circumstances as much as possible. Instacart experienced exponential growth as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, both in its customer base and its frontline workforce of shoppers. Instacart’s underpaid and beleaguered shoppers suddenly were declared “essential workers,” and expected to brave unprecedented conditions in our workplaces, as grocery stores — one of the few industries to remain operational throughout the entire pandemic — became hotbeds for exposure to COVID-19. People were panic buying supplies, both in person and digitally through services like Instacart. Shoppers were unable to obtain disinfectants, face masks, hand sanitizers, even rubbing alcohol for our customers, let alone for themselves. Stores began rationing certain goods, long lines for entry and checkout became commonplace, and social distancing protocols were put in place. Because stories of the shortages of vital supplies topped the news and because virtually every order required a shopper to refund PPE and other cleaning and personal supplies requested by customers, Instacart undoubtedly knew that stores were out of PPE and that most of its shoppers would be experiencing significant difficulty obtaining PPE. Despite knowing shoppers lacked the ability to obtain PPE themselves and were being placed in grave danger of contracting the virus, Instacart failed to provide it’s vulnerable and exposed shoppers with any PPE.

Rather than focusing on protecting its existing shoppers, Instacart invested its efforts in mass-hiring new shoppers, more than doubling its pre-pandemic workforce. Seemingly, Instacart believed it was more cost-effective to replace any shoppers felled by illness than to try to protect shoppers in the first instance. We hit our breaking point with the announcement of Instacart’s plan to hire an additional 300,000 workers, while still failing to provide any protection at all to any of its existing shoppers or aid to those shoppers who had contracted the virus. Thus, at the end of March, we walked off our jobs to protest the lack of protection in our workplaces. Instacart responded, but with the least effort possible; it made a commitment to provide basic PPE (a mask and hand sanitizer), while notably failing to meet our demands around hazard pay and sick pay. Notably, that commitment was not even met until the middle of April, and then it was only satisfied in part. Some shoppers received minimal PPE from Instacart while others were unable to even access the system to request PPE. Even more appallingly, Instacart threatened to shut down its operations when Seattle passed a local ordinance mandating a premium of $2.50/order for gig workers delivering prepared food and groceries during the pandemic. When the ordinance unanimously passed, Instacart sued the city of Seattle attempting to invalidate the ordinance. Instacart has demonstrated consistently that it has no compassion or concern for its shoppers’ safety or financial well-being.

Instacart not only refused to protect us from contracting COVID, but it also tried very hard to avoid any liability when a shopper did test positive for the virus. The company issued a press release claiming to provide up to 14 days of pay to any shoppers who tested positive, but, like always, there was a significant catch. Any shopper making a claim for compensation would need to provide a written letter from a public health official, a document that was seemingly impossible to retrieve. Workers who provided their positive Covid results were ignored for weeks before ultimately being denied the sick pay because they didn’t have this letter. We had to publicly shame Instacart into providing Covid sick pay to one of its shoppers, Alejo, who had been in a coma for two weeks because he couldn’t provide this letter.

And it is important to note that the consequences of Instacart’s callous disregard for the health and safety of its shoppers were felt not just by those beleaguered shoppers, but also by the communities in which Instacart operated. Providing PPE means that the chances of a shopper becoming ill were reduced. If a shopper escapes infection, then their customers have one less source of potential infection. Providing 14 days of pay means shoppers can quarantine at home when they tested positive, and not have to worry about their income. Because Instacart refused to provide Covid pay when workers tested positive, some shoppers were obligated to work when they were sick, because they couldn’t afford to quarantine.

In 2020, Instacart contributed over $30,000,000 to pass California’s Proposition 22, which exempts app-deployed transportation and delivery workers from being properly classified and stripped us of our eligibility for minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, paid family leave, sick pay, and the protected right to organize. While all of these rights, privileges, and benefits are important under ordinary circumstances, they become especially critical to all frontline essential workers during a global pandemic. Instacart, alongside Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Postmates, has signaled its intention of expanding the Prop 22 model to other jurisdictions, and even the federal level. Prop 22 — which was written and funded entirely by five gig companies — erodes the rights and protections of properly classified employment and properly classified independent contracting, while establishing a dangerous precedent of corporations simply purchasing the privilege of writing their own employment laws.

Along with its investment in Proposition 22, Instacart scaled back its In-Store-Shopper operations significantly during the pandemic. In-Store-Shoppers are properly classified employees who perform all the same functions as other Shoppers, except for delivery. Because In-Store-Shoppers are legally recognized as employees, they have the right to minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, paid family leave, and are federally protected in their rights to organize under the NLRA. In February 2020, despite Instacart’s union-busting attempts, a small group of about a dozen In-Store-Shoppers at Mariano’s in Skokie, Illinois, voted to unionize with UFCW. Within a year, Instacart retaliated, eliminating all of their positions alongside nearly 2,000 additional In-Store-Shopping positions. Instacart’s decision to essentially eliminate its properly classified In-Store Shopper employee positions occurred at the exact same time it was experiencing unprecedented growth because of the pandemic. Instacart encouraged laid-off employees to continue to shop for Instacart as independent contractors instead and it continued to hire thousands of previously-unaffiliated people as non-employee shoppers. It is clear that Instacart’s lay-offs were not due to a decreased need for labor, but, instead, can be attributed solely to its desire to retaliate against those who would challenge its exploitation of workers and its desire to rid itself of all the costs, risks, and liabilities borne by every other business that properly classified its employees. Through this perpetual game of tug of war over our labor conditions, one thing is abundantly clear, worker organizing is the only path we have to mitigating systemic labor grievances, and the only means of tipping the balance of power back in our favor. In the midst of a pandemic and a post-Prop 22, now more than ever we need the federal protections of the PRO-Act as a foundation, a first and necessary step in having gig workers recognized as properly classified employees, and the right to organize our own federally recognized unions.

Even given its exploitative treatment of its shopper workforce and even when essentially “gifted” the pandemic, Instacart is entering its 9th year without ever achieving profitability. Shoppers have sustained endless pay cuts, customers have been deceived and defrauded, entire communities have been put at a heightened risk of virus transmission, and increased fees have subsidized significant salaries to corporate employees. Markets have been oversaturated with shoppers in gross excess of the actual demand, resulting in reduced earnings opportunities for all shoppers. The pandemic created a dynamic in which Instacart saw an astronomical increase in growth, which simply isn’t sustainable beyond the confines of sheltering-in-place. Demand for Instacart’s services peaked in April 2020 and already has begun to wane. To be clear, even with the constellation of bizarre and unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic, Instacart is still not, and likely never will be, a profitable or sustainable company. But most importantly, it will never be an ethical company. It is crucial that we don’t reward its greed and exploitation with a successful direct listing. Stand with shoppers and #DELETEINSTACART.