Instacart’s demand has soared since coronavirus arrived. But the company is continuously changing how it offers work to shoppers, pitting them against one another as batches appear and are instantly claimed and rejecting their sick claims even after positive Covid-19 tests verified by a doctor. At The Verge, Russell Brandom reports on a dog-eat-dog gig system where Instacart is “just an interface, sitting between a pool of orders on one side and a pool of itinerant labor on the other.”
The problem is bigger than just masks and sick pay. The pandemic has turned grocery delivery into a vital service, and Instacart’s business has never been better. Orders are up 500 percent since the crisis started, and shoppers are seeing 60 percent more money for every job they run. Instacart hit profitability for the first time last month, and it plans to bring in 300,000 new full-service shoppers. It’s on track to process more than $35 billion in groceries this year, which would put it on par with the fifth-largest grocery chain in the country.
That success has come on the backs of workers like Rachel. As most of the country has been sheltering in place, workers have been spending hours in lines, hunting through chaotic and newly dangerous supermarkets so that clients don’t have to. Instacart still views those workers as independent contractors, and tensions between executives and gig shoppers have reached a breaking point. The company has already seen two public walkouts, each accompanied by the threat of a public boycott in solidarity. Most painfully, the longest-running shoppers say they’re being pushed out by the influx of new employees in a system designed to churn through bodies rather than protect frontline workers.
For shoppers, batches are the lifeblood of the job. Instacart sets prices for each batch, but they’re often so low that the runs don’t make economic sense. Small batches are often set at the $7 minimum or just above, which is practically nothing when you factor in waiting times and the price of gas. There are good batches, too, but they get snatched up quickly, while the bad ones linger on until they’re the only thing shoppers see. The result is a daily battle over who will get the most profitable batches and be able to make a living on the platform — a battle Instacart seems to be actively encouraging.
In other cases, the app seems purposefully designed to make workers vulnerable. Buyers promise a tip when they list a batch, but they can change it for days after the run is completed. It’s led to a practice shoppers call “tip-baiting,” where buyers list a big tip to make sure their batch gets taken, then pull it back after the fact. Instacart defends the system, saying it gives buyers discretion over how much they’re tipping. According to the company’s statistics, tips are only lowered after the run in 0.5 percent of cases — but the result is still less money in the pockets of gig workers, and it’s a structural vulnerability for people who are already extremely vulnerable.