The Industry

“They’re Counting on Our Desperation”

An Instacart worker on why she’s striking for coronavirus protections.

Instacart logo overlaid on a photo of a person holding bags of groceries.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HollenderX2/The Image Bank via Getty Images Plus.

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On Monday, many Instacart shoppers refused to deliver groceries in a nationwide strike to demand that the company provide workers with better pay, sick leave, and protective gear like gloves and hand sanitizer in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The service has seen a surge in orders as people try to avoid leaving their homes, and workers are now seeking more support from the company since they’re increasingly shouldering the risk of the outbreak. Employees at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse and a Lynn, Massachusetts, General Electric jet engine factory are also striking on Monday to pressure the companies to intensify their coronavirus responses. Instacart claimed that the strike has had no effect on its business.

To better understand how Instacart shoppers have been handling the outbreak, I spoke to Heidi Carrico, an Instacart shopper in Portland, Oregon, and a founding member of the Gig Workers Collective, which organized the Instacart strike. The transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aaron Mak: What’s it been like working as an Instacart shopper during the coronavirus outbreak?

Heidi Carrico: It’s been an absolute shit show. Everything I already knew about the company—about how exploitative and abusive and predatory they are—has just grown exponentially. The things that they are expecting shoppers to do for the amount of money that they’re paying out is abhorrent. The base pay here is $8. I see triple batches [orders for three different customers] coming in for $8.71 cents [in pay without tip]—that’s 15 miles of driving and over a hundred units we’re supposed to pick up. That doesn’t pay my bills, and it’s certainly not going to be enough if I get sick.

It’s scary out there. Most people finally now are really practicing social distancing, but there’s just enough people [at the grocery stores] who find this all a big joke. My husband is 62. He’s at a risky age to be going out. We need my money in order for us to pay rent. Just because there’s been an eviction hold here in Portland doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be paid at some point.

What’s it been like at the grocery stores and making deliveries?

People at the stores are in your space, and when you ask them if they would mind backing off, they laugh about it. There are a couple of stores that have been fantastic. They have people stationed outside with marks on the ground that are 6 feet apart. Some stores are only allowing a certain number of people in at a time and have employees walking through reminding people about social distancing. At other stores, customers are treating this like it’s spring break. Whole families are shopping with kids running around rubbing their noses and then playing with the produce. That puts us at risk.

I’ve read a lot of different opinions about wearing masks, and I can’t figure it out. I’m not wearing masks; I do wear gloves and change them a lot. My hands are cracking from all the hand sanitizer and hand-washing and putting those gloves on. Since this started, I don’t do anything but set things on the porch, knock on the door, and walk 12 feet away. I’ve had one person who got upset about that because they wanted help getting things inside. Customers are upset because things are out of stock, and so they’re taking it out on shoppers and removing their tips. We’re not some magic warehouse. People will try and order four cases of toilet paper, and it’s only one per customer. Sometimes we have to either rely on the grocery store workers to allow us to [buy it all] or we have to flip a coin and decide who gets the toilet paper.

What should Instacart be doing to support shoppers like you right now?

If there are three shops [orders], it should be $8 per shop. And then have a $5 raise on top of it, make it $13 per shop—that’s the way it should be. They need to get gloves and hand sanitizer out there. We can’t find it for all the money in the world. I look daily for it. I finally found gloves, and I’ve made my own hand sanitizer. That’s the bare minimum they should have done from the very beginning on this.

What forces you to keep working for Instacart despite the current dangers?

I’m 55 years old. I have physical disabilities, and I’m bipolar, so no one is going to hire me. My personal [grocery delivery] business that I started a year and a half ago doesn’t have enough clients to support my family yet, so I still have to do Instacart. They’re counting on our desperation. They’re counting on the fact that we are scared and we can’t pay our bills.

How did this strike come together?

Sarah Clarke [the pseudonym for one of the Gig Workers Collective founders] said on Thursday night, “Why don’t we have a strike?” We threw that all out there, and it just snowballed. None of us had any idea that it would get this big. [We got the word out] through Twitter and local Facebook groups. Also talking to reporters, posting on our personal pages, so that people who are not involved in the gig economy can see what’s going on. Social media is how we’re getting it done. None of us are professional organizers. We’re all gig workers. We’re all shoppers.

What do you want Instacart customers to know right now?

They need to understand where their groceries are actually coming from: the same stores that they would shop at. They’re being delivered in people’s personal cars. Shoppers are not paid an hourly wage. We’re paid a flat rate. Tips are very important. We’re considered independent contractors, but many states have already found that to be a misclassification. And I’d like customers to know that we’re doing the best we can. We’re trying to keep us safe, and we’re trying to keep them safe. We’re trying to save our families. We shouldn’t have to rely on tips in order to make it worth it. We should be paid fairly with tips on top of that, but we’re not, and that’s the reality.