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Essential or Expendable? Gig Workers at Instacart & Grocery Stores Demand Safety Gear & Hazard Pay

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Image Credit: Instacart

Grocery stores are one of the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, with store workers and gig economy shoppers often working without protection, as demand for groceries soars and millions of Americans stay home. “At first, when the adrenaline was still there, we were essential. We were prideful. And now, as we get more into it, that’s wearing off, and it’s seeming more like expendable,” says Matthew Telles, a member of the Gig Workers Collective, who is a personal shopper who helped organize a strike by Instacart workers in March to demand the company implement appropriate safety measures and give them hazard pay.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from epicenter of the pandemic, New York City.

As President Trump and state governors clash over plans to roll back lockdowns and other protective measures, new figures show more than 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims since mid-March. Many are still waiting to receive the financial lifeline the government promised in the $2 trillion relief package last month. Delays may be even longer for self-employed and gig economy workers who are not normally eligible for unemployment benefits but are covered in the relief package.

This comes as grocery stores are one of the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, with store workers and gig economy shoppers often working without protection, as demand for groceries soars and millions of Americans stay home.

Last week, I spoke with a personal shopper, who formerly worked for the delivery app Instacart, about the risks grocery store and delivery workers face. Instacart workers went on strike in March to demand the company implement appropriate safety measures and give them hazard pay. Matthew Telles is a member of the Gig Workers Collective, which organized the strike. I asked him to start by explaining the history of Instacart.

MATTHEW TELLES: Yeah. Instacart is one of these startups from, you know, about seven or eight years ago, a little after Uber was created, came out of that group of the first batch, and really small to start off. I started in late 2015, and it was amazing. I had a previous career that I had to leave behind because of a workplace injury, and was going to use Instacart as like a kind of just a stopgap until I found my next venture, and fell in love with it. It paid great, gave me access to all the amazing buildings downtown, like the top of the Sears Tower, all the tunnels. Like, someone who loves history, like it was amazing.

And pretty — a couple months after I started, around 2016, early 2016, Instacart wanted to start competing with Amazon, who had just kind of purchased Whole Foods, and implemented what’s known in the industry as something called scale hacking or growth hacking, where they grow at all costs just to beat their nearest competitor to market. And the way that they do that is they start cutting the pay for all of their frontline employees, like myself, the shopper who’s out in the stores.

The first huge move that they tried to do, back when there was only about 70,000 total shoppers in the country, not even in Canada yet, Instacart made an announcement that they were going to remove tipping from the platform, which at that point, for me personally in Chicago, made up about 18% average for what I earned every day. So we kind of banded together. We used our large Facebook groups to kind of just find the loudest voices and band together and fight back. And, you know, we got them to reinstate tipping, after threatening to walk off. And ever since then, we feel like they’ve been retaliating as they’ve grown more.

Last count, they had 200,000 shoppers, but they have just brought on almost like 100,000 more in the last two weeks, as people —

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can I interrupt you? When you say “shoppers,” they bring on shoppers —

MATTHEW TELLES: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — explain how how system works. Someone goes online and puts in an order for food, and then what happens at your end?

MATTHEW TELLES: So, on my end, that will be grouped in a offering in my area. It’s called “on demand.” It’s a way for Instacart to get out from under, like, employment protections, with AB 5 in California. So there’s just a bunch of orders displayed for you, and you have to grab them before someone else does. So, right now, since there’s so much desperation out there, a lot of people trying to make ends meet, they go very quickly, and you just got to be fast. And you don’t know the address you’re delivering to, what’s in the order. You just blindly grab it and hope that it pays [inaudible] labor.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you grab it from?

MATTHEW TELLES: From the app on our smartphones. Most people will be sitting in a parking lot of a grocery store that they prefer to shop at. So, they’ll try and shop at that store, after getting the list of available batches, and they’ll select it and claim it. And then no one else can claim it. And then you start shopping that order in the grocery store, as you would for yourself. You wait in a checkout line, as you would for yourself. There’s no like special privileges for Instacart contractors. And then you deliver with your own vehicle to the customer’s doorstep, hopefully, and you swipe “delivered,” and you move on to your next one. More batches become available, and you get to choose from that list.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of protective gear are people given?

MATTHEW TELLES: Well, as of just a couple days ago, none. Just this morning, as I was checking the various Facebook groups across the country, I have seen that some of the hand sanitizers that Instacart ordered are starting to arrive. We have some reports that a lot of them are damaged, though, so they’re leaking and not making it to the people who ordered them. You can’t order them right now on their website.

And we haven’t seen any of the safety kits they created actually arrive yet. I actually have a preorder out for one, just to see if it ever arrives. At this point, after four-plus years of fighting Instacart, I don’t believe anything they say until I can see it, touch it and actually like experience it. So, I don’t even know if those exist. Instacart PR is telling a lot of the media that, you know, they’re doing all these great things. And they’re just empty words to a lot of people like me.

AMY GOODMAN: So —

MATTHEW TELLES: You know, we — sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about tipping and how it was removed, now it’s put back. Can you talk about what’s happening now, how people use tipping to make sure that, you know, they can somehow get an order not a month from now? And what actually happens to those tips?

MATTHEW TELLES: Yeah. So, there’s obviously a huge history with tipping in Instacart. But this is actually a problem that was uncovered or picked up by CNN recently about tip baiting. This has been an ongoing issue with Instacart for years, where, you know, certain Facebook groups of like couponers and other people, they pass like life hacks that have actual real-world ramifications for humans.

And, you know, there’s something going on right now where people will put their tip high on an order, which we see the tip ahead of time. So we will, you know, “Oh, they’re going to pay me a $100 tip to get them, you know, 20 items at a grocery store. That’s worth my time. I’ll take it.” But you go to the store, you shop the order, you get maybe half of it, you deliver it, and then, you know, a half-hour after delivery, you’ll see that the tip was removed.

So, one of two things is going on. It’s either tip baiting or another Instacart bug in their systems that basically handle all the financial side of how we’re paid. We’ve had them admit to a tip-stealing bug on at least two or three occasions, and probably several more that they’ll never admit to. So, it’s really hard to tell with no transparency within the company. It’s all through blackbox algorithms. And really, you know, we just got to kind of feel what’s going on by
crowdsourcing information via Facebook and Twitter.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a statement made by the Instacart founder and CEO, Apoorva Mehta, who announced the company would bring on 300,000 additional shoppers to meet increased demand amidst the pandemic. Mehta said workers are being provided with health and safety supplies, issued a statement that said, quote, “We are also offering additional support for shoppers who may be affected by COVID-19. All in-store shoppers nationwide now have access to sick pay, an accrued benefit that can be used as paid time off if you’re absent from work due to illness or injury. Additionally, any full-service or in-store shopper can receive up to 14 days of extended pay if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in individual mandatory isolation or quarantine.” Again, the statement of the CEO of Instacart. Your response, Matthew Telles?

MATTHEW TELLES: I’m like shaking with rage right now. I’ve said it before. If I was the governor of any state, I would put a hiring freeze on all of these apps immediately, until they prove those words you just read to me, because that’s not the real-world application.

Instacart announced they’re hiring 300,000 people, 27,000 of them to your epicenter in New York and another 50,000 to California, which is on like a complete lockdown. These new shoppers are the ones who are recently out of work. And everyone deserves a living wage. And it breaks my heart to see these new shoppers out in the stores, because I’m still out in the stores with my personal business that I was able to create over the last couple of years with a different company. And my biggest issue right now is all these new Instacart shoppers that are unprotected in the stores with their entire families a lot of times. They’re really harassing the grocery store workers a lot of times. We have a lot of reports of that, and I’ve seen that with my own eyes. We’re seeing issues where, you know, there’s issues at delivery. There’s issues with safety.

We have reports of Instacart asking a simple one-question hiring process of “Have you been convicted of a felony in the last seven years?” If you answer no, you are immediately activated and could go shop orders using like Google Pay. So, last week and two weeks ago, people were just getting activated and on-boarded immediately. They sent a email to their customer base saying, basically, “Hey, we know you got laid off. You want to work for Instacart as a shopper?” And everyone signed up. And they bragged about that. I have the email. It’s gross. And so, they just activated these new shoppers without background checks.

There’s even reports of, down in Miami, they’re hiring underage people, 16, 17 years old. And they were having issues at checkout because they didn’t even have their payment cards yet or any identification, and Google Pay was failing. So they were paying for Instacart orders with their own money. And that’s always been a problem to get Instacart to reimburse you for that.

So, we’re just trying to get a bunch of information out there to these new shoppers. We’re not here to police them. But like, if no one’s going to train them, someone has to. And, you know, we’ll do what we can in the stores or answer some questions in Facebook groups, but patience is wearing kind of thin. And, you know, it’s definitely very emotional, when you’re in a grocery store trying to stay safe, and now you’re trying to traverse, you know, hordes of Instacart shoppers at Costco and trying to avoid the elderly folks in the store, who are trying to protect themselves, while also trying to avoid the other group of people who are like in denial. So, the job’s become very, very stressful. It’s not for everyone. And I don’t think eight out of the 10 people who have just been laid off should be looking at Instacart for employment. It’s just not worth it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to customers of Instacart? Some people have just discovered it for the first time during this pandemic. What kind of leverage do you think customers have to ensure that the gig workers, the people who work, the shoppers, are justly dealt with?

MATTHEW TELLES: Customers actually do have a lot of leverage. Instacart will always tell the media and customers that people like myself and the groups that I work with and organize are a vocal minority. And that’s just definitely not the case. A lot of people are speaking up. We’re getting way less pushback from joining our actions as of late, because this is a very serious issue. And people are starting to realize that groceries, your food, your health, your safety, are also very important, because all it takes is one infected delivery person to take down your entire family and anyone that you might be kind of linked up with.

But Instacart customers, especially new ones, look at the deep history of what we’ve been involved in over the last four-and-a-half years. It’s all available in a quick Google search. Just look up Instacart and hit “news,” and you’ll be able to read all about the different things that Instacart’s kind of done over the years, all of the kind of lies they’ve been caught in, all of this stuff. Basically, their PR statements, there’s just the same thing every six months. So you can go back and read them all, and they’re all just the same statement. And they’re all hollow. No action has ever been taken from them. So, just do your research.

And then, once you’ve learned about Instacart — don’t take my word for it, like listen to journalists and experts — look for alternatives. You know, there are still some grocery stores out there that aren’t tied to Instacart, that have their own in-house delivery still. It’s a good-paying job. There’s also other apps out there that are much more ethical.

Me, personally, I was able to link up and work closely with the founders of an app called Dumpling, out of Seattle, that lets me set my own rates. And that could be as low as free. I get to choose who I give free delivery to, whether it be elderly people or immunocompromised, which then the company, Dumpling, is going to subsidize, which I haven’t asked for yet, because I’m one of the lucky few that has more work than I can really, you know, handle right now, because people are not using Instacart or Amazon. Amazon just put a freeze on new customers, because they can’t handle it.

So, right now we’re seeing like this business model kind of blow up under the stress of demand. And us veteran shoppers always knew that was going to happen, and we’ve been blowing the whistle and calling foul on a lot of these different hacks that these companies utilize, and loopholes. And because of that, I haven’t had to market with Dumpling or anything. People are just coming to me. It’s free marketing. And I have — my days are packed. From 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., I’m driving all over. It’s awesome.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, if you could end by just talking about the Gig Workers Collective? Not just Instacart, but talk about —

MATTHEW TELLES: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — what, overall, people are facing. And who is the population of gig workers that are doing this kind of shopping at this absolutely critical time, where, as one of your statements puts out of the Gig Workers Collective, “Instacart has turned this pandemic into a PR campaign, portraying itself the hero of families that are sheltered-in-place, isolated, or quarantined”? But who are the gig workers, in general, the other companies and the population of gig workers?

MATTHEW TELLES: So, Gig Workers Collective came about after years of just being a ragtag group of people in Facebook and Twitter — me, Vanessa, Sarah. And then people have come and gone over the years. You know, they either just left the gig industry altogether or moved on to other things or just couldn’t handle it or, you know, are still with us. We have dozens of people now all over the country linked up. I don’t even know what most of the people look like. So we’re just shoppers. Most of us are people that are still kind of trying to rebuild from the last recession. I graduated right when it hit. So, you know, I haven’t had a good past decade, and I’m now finally in a position where I’m having a great decade. And it’s awesome.

But, you know, we’re now kind of trying to streamline the process so we can get the message out even farther, as — because everyone’s going to be in the gig industry eventually, if we don’t do something. You know, everyone just got laid off — what? Like eight in 10 workers or something, about to. And we’re probably going to be in a depression. So, everyone’s going to be in the gig economy. You know, it’s not just going to be the systemically impoverished minorities, immigrants. They start with them, us — Mexican myself. And now we’re seeing, you know, more of the middle class being laid off again, just like last time. They’re going to start flooding these apps and aren’t going to have enough information to do them safely or adequately. So we’re just trying to get the word out, because we know that we’re not going to be able to prevent people from looking for income right now. And if they have to risk that, they need to be protected with information and what to look out for, because these companies — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub, Caviar, Shipt — DoorDash is one of the worst ones — and Instacart, the king of just horrendous business decisions — will take advantage of them.

You know, they call us essential workers. From watching you guys all today, it seems more like we’re expendable. I guarantee you there’s some memos behind closed doors that say, you know, “When they die, we’ll just replace them.” And it’s heartbreaking. But from that, we see so much good coming out of it with helping each other. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: Expendable or essential, Matthew?

MATTHEW TELLES: I think, at first, when the adrenaline was still there, we were essential. We were prideful. And now, as we get more into it, that’s wearing off, and it’s seeming more like expendable.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Telles, member of the Gig Workers Collective.

And that does it for the show. Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our remarkable team is working from home. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh. Special thanks to Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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