COVID-19 response fuels Instacart strike

instagigA week after Instacart announced plans to bring on 300,000 new personal shoppers, some of the independent contractors making up its workforce went on strike. The COVID-19 pandemic, enmeshed in all aspects of daily life, is the source of both the hiring spree and workers' ire.

Instacart said its service has become essential for millions, and that's not a stretch when at-risk communities, including the elderly, pregnant and those with compromised immune systems, are being advised to stay at home — and even those less at risk are trying to avoid getting sick via social distancing and donning masks and gloves out in public.

Retailers are seeing unprecedented grocery sales and that boom extends to Instacart, which has seen order volume grow by more than 150 percent year-over-year, with average customer basket size also increasing by 15 percent. "The last few weeks have been the busiest in Instacart's history and our teams are working around the clock to reliably and safely serve all members of our community. Instacart shoppers have stepped up as household heroes for families, grandparents, and people in need coast-to-coast," said Apoorva Mehta, founder and chief executive officer of Instacart.

But while retailers are taking measures to protect both shoppers and employees — adjusted hours to assist with sanitation, dedicated shopping times for at-risk communities, sneeze guards at registers and increased time off for illness — Instacart's striking workforce say the company hasn't done enough to address their safety concerns.

"Instacart has still not provided essential protections to shoppers on the front lines that could prevent them from becoming [COVID-19] carriers, falling ill themselves, or worse," Gig Workers Collective, which represents various contract workers, including those at Instacart, Doordash, Grubhub, Uber and Lyft, said in a statement. "Instacart’s promise to pay shoppers up to 14 days of pay if diagnosed or placed in mandatory quarantine not only falls short, but isn’t even being honored."

The shoppers who walked off yesterday said they will not return to work until Instacart offers:

  • Safety precautions at no cost to workers — personal protective equipment (at minimum hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes/sprays and soap).   
  • Hazard pay — an extra $5 per order and defaulting the in-app tip amount to at least 10 percent of the order total.
  • An extension and expansion of pay for workers impacted by COVID-19 — anyone who has a doctor’s note for either a preexisting condition that’s a known risk factor or requiring a self-quarantine.
  • The deadline to qualify for these benefits must be extended beyond April 8.

Instacart responded with plans to distribute new health and safety supplies to full-service shoppers and launched a new customer tip default setting; however, Gig Workers Collective released a statement calling the company's plan a "sick joke," saying Instacart's efforts fell short of addressing safety and compensation concerns: "Workers should not be risking their lives for pocket change."

For weeks retailers have been selling out of supplies almost as quickly as they can stock them so shoppers, whether consumers themselves or contract workers, will keep flowing through the aisles because grocery stores are the quintessential essential business.

"U.S. grocers have served as the backbone of the communities they operate in for decades. Now, more than ever, they provide a critical service for Americans confined to their homes and in need of the basic necessities amid the spread of COVID-19," Suzanne Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement put out by Instacart. "Instacart is serving as a critical lifeline for millions of people and hundreds of businesses during these uncertain times."

Clark added that Instacart is "not only connecting people from all 50 states to the groceries and goods they so desperately need, but they're also stepping in to support the economy by unlocking much-needed earnings opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer rely on their previous incomes." It seems not all of Instacart's employees would agree.

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