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Photo by Nick Otto for Washington Post

Instacart’s Plan to Prey on 300,000 Desperate Workers

Instacart just unveiled its plan to add an additional 300,000 Shoppers to its existing workforce of 175,000 Full-Service Shoppers. Three hundred thousand desperate workers that have been laid-off to help flatten the curve will now instead be hopelessly wandering the aisles of already crowded grocery stores.

Instacart is not lacking adequate numbers of Shoppers, they are lacking adequate safety measures to allow already-existing Shoppers to continue to work safely. The fabricated PR narrative of heroic “job creation” in this time of crisis is a farce, they simply know that the pool of potential new blood is desperate enough to potentially put themselves into harm’s way. Instacart deserves no accolades, they’re simply exploiting those — and harming those — who have no other recourse. Instacart is wielding COVID-19 as a weapon. These are the absolute most despicable machinations of the gig economy at work.

Instacart is attempting to recruit a new pool of workers from those that have been laid off from jobs in what the media likes to call “non-essential” retail, including from restaurants, and even other gig apps that have seen a decline in business. Workers that are desperate to stave off eviction, foreclosure, repossession, and starvation. In order to appear generous, Instacart has increased referral bonuses in some markets — the Bay Area, Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York — to an astonishing and unprecedented $2,500. Instacart could’ve extend that sum to all existing Shoppers working through the most dangerous, stressful, and unprecedented working conditions ever faced — but instead, Instacart has chosen to focus its attention on those who are desperate enough to be manipulated.

Instacart has spent $0 to provide any Full-Service Shoppers on the frontlines with protective equipment and supplies. Not a single cent to provide us with soap, gloves, masks, disinfectants, or hand sanitizers (despite what their comms team tells the media). As Instacart Shopper Vanessa Bain recently explained to Forbes, Shoppers are left to work with “what they have, can find, and can afford, which is oftentimes nothing.”

On March 9, Instacart committed to “offer up to 14 days of pay for any part-time employee or full-service shopper who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in mandatory isolation or quarantine.” This policy, which will likely benefit few if any Shoppers, will disqualify Shoppers from eligibility by design. It requires a diagnosis that is virtually impossible to obtain, and that’s the point. If the cost of a doctor’s visit isn’t prohibitively expensive, the country’s testing capacity is close to nonexistent. These two factors taken together mean these superficial commitments from Instacart are meaningless, and Shoppers know they will not be able to actually draw benefits from them. It does nothing for Shoppers whose families have been impacted by school closures or shelter-in-place orders. By every measure, this commitment falls far short of the meaningful safety nets and insurance programs afforded to properly classified employees, such as Unemployment Insurance, State Disability Insurance, Paid Family Leave, and Workers’ Compensation.

So what are working conditions actually like right now for Instacart’s 175,000 existing Shoppers? In short, it’s horrific. Most Shoppers still have no access to essentials like hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. And it’s no better when trying to find these for others — when shopping orders, stock of these items is depleted, and Instacart is doing an inadequate job of warning customers about stock shortages, leading to profound frustration for customers, and ultimately, Shoppers’ ratings are taking devastating blows due to stock issues entirely out of their control. Social distancing is rarely respected, lines are long, and patience is wearing thin. We fear that we are becoming the very vectors that Instacart and the gig economy claim to be minimizing, and the idea of 300,000 new, inexperienced Shoppers being exposed to these working conditions terrifies us.

Shoppers have a well-documented history of grievances against Instacart. When Instacart announced that they would be expanding their hiring at an unprecedented rate, we understood what’s at stake. Before anyone applauds Instacart as job creators, or some kind of economic savior, we implore that you ask “what kind of jobs are they creating?” The answer is the worst possible kind. Instacart intends to condemn 300,000 new individuals — picture the entire population of Cincinatti, OH or Buffalo, NY — into cyclical poverty and dangerous working conditions. A major city’s worth of desperate people plunged into deplorable working conditions. They will lack the most basic protections afforded to properly classified employees like minimum wage, overtime, sick pay, paid family leave, health insurance, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and workers’ compensation insurance. And they will be trapped there, because Instacart knows many, if not most of them, will have nowhere else to turn.

Instacart has utilized over-hiring as a means of compensating for our dwindling pay. There is no doubt that Instacart is utilizing its mass hiring to further drive down earnings while expanding its operations. Shopping for Instacart requires far more skill than Instacart leads applicants to believe. Veteran Shoppers are navigating this uncharted territory with extreme caution and barely surviving, we can only imagine the scope of how far the quality of service will degrade when inexperienced workers are left to fend for themselves.

What happens to both existing Shoppers and new hires when the demand inevitably wanes? An oversupply of labor and decreased demand will only tip the scales further in Instacart’s favor ensuring that earnings will fall to an all-time low, leaving both veteran Shoppers and new hires without viable income and while Instacart laughs its way to the bank.

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