Risking Your Life for $8.71

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S1: Heidi Caraco is a shopper for Instacart. If you’re not familiar with it, Instacart is a company that allows users to send someone else to the grocery store to do their shopping for them right now. For obvious reasons, it’s really popular and Heidi is scared. What’s it like working as an Instacart worker right now?

S2: Terrifying.

S3: It’s gotten a little bit better because fewer people are in the stores, but there’s still whole families going out shopping right now, treating this like it’s no vacation time. I worry about going out and picking something up and bringing it home to my family. But I don’t really have the option to not work. Right now, we have bills to pay.

S4: Heidi lives in Portland, Oregon, and she’s fifty five. She’s been working for Instacart for three years.

S5: Right now, she’s being as careful as she can.

S6: When I get into the store, I just carry my sanitizer with me.

S7: I use it frequently while I’m picking stuff in the store when I check out. I stay as far away as possible. I bag my own groceries in any store that will allow it. Right now, I bag my own groceries. I want to do hands touching stuff as possible. When I get back into my car, of course, I use the hand sanitizer again. I use wipes all over my steering wheel, my my car door, my phone. Then when I get to the client’s house, I open up my hatchback and that’s when I put gloves on. When I pick up their groceries and take them to their porch and knock on their door, I walk off by 6 to 12 feet. I wait until they come out and acknowledge that they know their groceries are sitting there. And then when I get back in my car, I take my gloves off and sanitize again.

S8: How much do you get paid for doing a trip like that?

S7: Right now, I am seeing orders going for eight dollars and seventy one cents to three different families. About fifteen miles. And stores are out of everything.

S3: It’s so abusive and exploitative and predatory.

S1: Wait a minute. Is $8 the tip or $8 is the total? Eight dollars is what Instacart is paying. Any tip on top of that is up to the customer and all that protective gear Heidi uses while she’s shopping. She pays for that herself. This week, Heidi and other Instacart workers went on strike. In fact, she’s part of the group that organized the walkout. They want better pay protective equipment and access to paid sick leave for myself and for every other gig worker out there.

S3: It is trying so hard to keep going and is and we’re fed up with being exploited. We get called out and told that that we’re selfish for striking right now because people need us. People need us. They need to act like they need us. They need to show us that they need us and calling us household heroes. That’s not anything that I can hand to my landlord when rent is due.

S4: There are strikes and protests around the country at Amazon and Whole Foods, Heidi.

S5: And gig workers like her argue that right now they’re essential workers. The people need them and that the companies they work for are exposing them to risks without the kind of precautions or compensation that they deserve. This week on the show, what do we owe to the gig workers on the frontlines of the delivery economy? I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD. A show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S9: Heidi and other Instacart shoppers started their strike on Monday, and at the same time we’ve seen strikes around the country and Amazon warehouses and grocery stores. I wanted to get a better sense of the big picture. So I called up Johanna Boudia. She’s a tech accountability reporter at the L.A. Times. She says the main reason we’re seeing these strikes now is because demand for delivery services has spiked.

S10: Shoppers are being assigned two to three orders at a time, which means that they have to shop for two to three people at once and then go and deliver to those two to three families and households. That means double, triple the time. But the shoppers are not being paid for each order. They’re still just getting what the minimum would be for one order. So if you’re thinking about shelter-in-place orders right now, customers are probably ordering much, much bigger grocery orders right now. And so it’s even more of a work load than it actually was before all of this started happening.

S1: Yeah, I think about our grocery shopping, we’re still shopping. We tried to do it as little as possible. But that time in the store is so scary. And I’m just thinking about what it would feel like to be there for twice as long as you were sort of budgeting in your head or three times as long. That’s got to feel very precarious.

S10: Definitely. And while they’re doing that, they’re on the phone with them. They’re communicating with them just in case. You know, one item is out and this is, again, something that typically happens even outside of this current pandemic. But there are shortages in grocery stores right now. So that’s happening a lot more than it typically does.

S9: Let’s talk a little bit about contract workers in general, both for companies like Instacart and Jordache, but then also Uber and Lyft. You know, is there a way to say for a typical gig worker what the job means to them?

S11: Yeah. As I’m writing all these stories, the thing that people keep saying to me is, well, they have a choice. They don’t have to do those jobs. And why don’t they just quit? And it’s like, well, you know, there have been times where I, as an employee have been unhappy with my job, but sometimes quitting is not the most feasible option. On top of the fact that the companies are making it very difficult for them to stay at home and still get paid. These workers don’t have access to employee benefits. They don’t have the protections that you or I have.

S9: Things like paid sick leave, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance companies like Instacart and Amazon have added new benefits for workers during the Corona virus outbreak. Instacart made changes to their default tip settings and on Thursday offered shoppers a reusable mask, thermometer and hand sanitizer as a result of the strikes. The company also offered up to 14 days of paid sick leave if their workers test positive for Khirbet. 19. Jordache, a meal delivery service, made that same promise. But this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Johanna told me about a Door Desh worker named Toby.

S10: So Toby was driving for a door. DYCHE About three, four days after his county, Alameda County, implemented shelter-in-place orders and it only took a matter of a few days for him to start feeling symptoms that he described as shortness of breath, a dry cough. He said that he felt extremely exhausted when he called me to talk to me about this. I could barely understand what he was saying because his voice was extremely raspy and he wasn’t able to talk above a certain decibel. And so he got a note from his doctor that said exactly that, that he was treated and he was taking a look at. And the doctor directed him to self-quarantine.

S9: So Toby sent his doctor’s note to door dash.

S10: Given a new policy, he expected paid leave and they rejected him without an ability to appeal. And there was no indication of why. They just said that it was rejected. You can’t appeal does a decision is final. So he reached out to me. And I when I reached out to them, they said, oh, well, actually, it doesn’t specifically say Cauvin 19 related symptoms.

S12: So we can’t give him the sick leave when he got rejected. He was also suspended for two weeks because the company wanted to keep the door Dasch community safe. And the only way for him to get on suspended was to send in a letter clearing him of Cauvin 19. So he was suspended because there was a chance he at Koven, 19, but wasn’t getting pay because the note didn’t say Koven 19 specifically.

S5: After Johanna published a story about him, Toby did eventually get a new note from his doctor and got sick time. But stories like his plus frustration with low pay and limited protective equipment were happening at the same time the number of cobia cases climbed around the country.

S1: A lot of these strikes have happened this week. How did they come to be organized? And I also guess. Why now specifically?

S13: Yeah, the Instacart strike in particular. They have this fifteen thousand person Facebook group where they’ve been organizing these protests and actions for the last three or so years. So a lot of what they’ve been doing the past kind of has built up to this moment where in the past it was a matter of getting more income and being able to survive and to make a living. Now, it really is a matter of protecting themselves and the stakes are much, much higher. I think it really does paint this picture of how scared these workers are. They’re risking their potential for income in order to get better benefits and better protections at a time where they need it the most.

S1: What are the companies say to all of this?

S13: Instacart says that their shoppers are largely happy and their business is doing well and that the strikes has affected their business at all.

S14: So even though they do have more levers and they probably have ever had before. Companies are still kind of shying away from giving them the full protections that they’re asking for, possibly because it will sort of look like employee benefits.

S15: It’s likely that companies are not giving them things like paid sick leave and worker’s compensation and things like that because they don’t want to be legally seen and recognized as an employer.

S16: For companies like Instacart, Door, Dash, Uber and Lyft, this question of whether their workers are employees or independent contractors is key and a source of big fights over the last few years. Tech companies want to classify workers as independent contractors because it’s cheaper. But many workers want to be classified as employees so they can receive better benefits. The latest development in this fight was the passage of a law in California called EB 5 Assembly Bill 5. The law, which took effect this year, makes it much more difficult for these companies to argue their workers are independent contractors. And all of that is in the background right now as companies and workers negotiate special benefits around the coronavirus.

S1: When we think about the concessions that these companies have offered their workers so far, kind of in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. How does that play into you, the questions around Aybe 5, you know, whether someone’s an employee or not?

S17: Yeah, it looks like they’re being very cognizant of toeing the line between what they could potentially offer them that wouldn’t hurt them and their battle against HB 5 down the road, you know, offering paid sick leave up to 14 days, but only if you have this specific disease or if you have been directly told by a physician or a public health official that you need to quarantine. And beyond that, they’re not really offering much else because this is an ongoing battle. There have already been regulators and legislators in California who are trying to push the companies to abide by A B, 5. They’re not going to want to give them more fodder for that argument.

S1: I mean, what would the consequences be for one of these companies that relies on contractors if they offered more extensive sick pay, if they offered more benefits to their workers in terms of maybe five, it would make them look even more like employers that the legislature says they already do.

S13: There are lawsuits right now happening, asking that judge mandate that Uber and Lyft drivers get immediate access to the benefits that they would get under a B five.

S18: They’re not going to want to give that workers too much. That would discount or contradict their own arguments that they can’t give those workers those benefits all the time.

S1: You know, so much of this is in the spotlight right now here in New York, where I am. Amazon fired a worker who protested working conditions. And I have to admit, you know, cynical reporter that I am that actually surprised me that they would risk the bad publicity, which made me wonder if there was anything that should be read into that, that the company was willing to to do that.

S15: Yeah.

S14: I mean, it’s it’s it’s kind of similar to the Google issue where, you know, months ago Google fired a bunch of workers who were very prominent activists and who were, you know, very loudly protesting a lot of Google’s ethical and business decisions.

S15: And it was the first time that the company went out and just blatantly fired activists. They, of course, say that they did this because there were rules that they violated. Amazon said the same thing about this protester, that they were specific rules that he violated. So they’re not taking full responsibility for that. But the optics of it alone, it seems like a very high risk for these companies. I think the big thing is at both companies, these workers are talking about unionizing. One of the sort of anti-union tactics that are being used across the board is to make examples of workers who try to speak out against the companies. Amazon, Google, to say that that that’s not what they were doing, but it is sending a clear message. I’d say, though, you are easily replaced. There are people who are desperate for jobs. And that’s that is true. Whether it’s coronavirus or whether there just have been in a precarious situation for a long time, they need that income.

S1: Let’s talk about unemployment, because I think if you are an employee of a company, you may not grasp this, but gig workers are not eligible for unemployment. What happens to those workers if they can’t work?

S17: So nationwide, it’s it’s hard to tell because that is state to state. But in California, the labor commissioner has said that they will process those claims and then determine if if those workers have actually been misclassified. Basically, they have to file. They have to say they’ve been misclassified, they have to read. They’re probably going to get rejected and then they have to appeal that. And the reason why they’re likely to get a rejection is because the companies themselves don’t pay into the unemployment insurance fund. So at a certain point, this is exactly what the author of HB 5 is saying. The unemployment insurance fund is going to dry up and we need these companies. And that’s why every five is so important. We need these companies to pay into that fund so that it doesn’t dry up as we’re navigating this unprecedented time where people are losing jobs and being laid off and having their hours cut.

S19: You know, I think if you’re sitting at home listening to this and trying to do the most ethical thing, balancing worker safety, social distancing. It’s really hard to know what to do. When you talk to workers who are doing frontline deliveries, what do they want customers to do?

S17: One, I think is just sitting acknowledgement of what they’re doing for them. But to I think tips like that is the big thing. You know, in lieu of the companies giving them any extra pay or anything like that or a sufficiently extra pay, the workers are relying completely on us to give them tips. So they’re doing a lot more work, whether it is, you know, emotional labor of risking your life right now or. The actual labor. It will help them to give them that extra that extra boost.

S1: I’m curious about whether you think this is going to reshape the way these companies behave on a large scale, long term way.

S18: It’s it’s really interesting. It’s an interesting question. And I think we don’t really know because this is unprecedented in a lot of ways. These companies also just did not exist during any other economic downturn.

S17: They weren’t around during 9/11, burn around during the 2008 recession. So even economically, this this is, you know, completely new ground for them. So whether that means they’ll have to scale back on their own businesses or whether that means they actually do have to treat their workers better because they are at risk of losing them and that actually will take a huge hit on them. We really don’t know. I think a lot of workers are hoping that moving forward, the things that they’re offering them will they’ll sort of start building on that and they’ll realize how important these these contractors are to them going forward.

S20: We need the companies to accept that we’re the backbone.

S19: I asked Heidi that same question about whether Kogut, 19, might reshape the relationship between tech companies and gig workers and what that new relationship might look like.

S20: We’re the face of Instacart. When somebody thinks Instacart, they think that person who delivered to me last week, today, last month, whatever, that needs to be acknowledged and it needs to be appreciated.

S19: Heidi Caraco is an Instacart shopper and founding member of the Gig Workers Collective. Johanna Boudia is a tech accountability reporter at the L.A. Times. All right. That’s our show for today. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me. Lizzie O’Leary. And it’s part of a larger what next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you want to understand all the complicated twists and turns around Corona virus at Liberty University, go back and listen to Thursday’s episode of What’s Next. Mary and her team will be back on Monday. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.