Instacart, the order online grocery delivery giant, is one of the few companies to boom during the coronavirus pandemic. But a recent strike by Instacart workers calls into question the ethics of its practices. “Most gig workers don’t have any savings,”Heidi Carrico says. “Instacart is taking full advantage of this, and, truthfully, it is predatory. They are counting on us being desperate for work—we are scared, we need to feed our families.” 

Multiple times a day, Heidi Carrico dons a protective mask and gloves, readies her hand sanitizer and marches into battle. 

Her primary field of engagement is the grocery store, where Carrico is a personal shopper who works on occasion for Instacart, the order online grocery delivery giant that’s one of the few companies (along with suddenly ubiquitous video conferencing app Zoom) to boom during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Carrico, who lives in Northeast Portland, is waging war on another front: against her sometimes employer. She is one of about a dozen women from around the country who led a nationwide strike against the company earlier this week, calling for protective gear, hazard pay of $5 tacked onto each batch of orders, and higher tip minimums. 

The San Francisco-based company insisted publicly that the strike had little effect on its ability to deliver groceries. But on Thursday, Instacart executives announced they would be providing their “shopper” workforce members with reusable masks, hand sanitizer, and thermometers—a partial victory for Carrico and the other members of the Gig Workers Collective, the labor activism group she helped found that has emerged as a voice for Lyft drivers, DoorDash delivery workers, Instacart shoppers, and others in the gig economy. 

“Most gig workers don’t have any savings,” she says. “Instacart is taking full advantage of this, and, truthfully, it is predatory. They are counting on us being desperate for work—we are scared, we need to feed our families.” 

Northeast Portland resident Heidi Carrico is one of the founders of the Gig Workers Collective, a labor rights nonprofit.

Carrico’s got a number of bones to pick with the company, starting with their “batch” system—shoppers are often dispatched to a store to shop for multiple households at once, but only being paid for one order. That can mean base pay in Portland is as low as $8.71 per batch, she says. (On its website, Instacart notes that it is now offering bonuses of between $25 and $200 to shoppers who have worked between March 15 and April 15, depending on their hours. )

Carrico also dings the company for setting its “default” tip on its app to just 5 percent, though earlier this week,  Instacart changed its algorithm to default to a customer’s most recent tip level—so, if you gave 15 percent on your last order, it will be set there automatically for your next one.

The Gig Workers Collective has been trying to get the minimum tip level upped to 10 percent across the board for years, says Carillo.  

Despite her battles with the company, Carrico still says that getting groceries delivered is a more ethical choice right now than going to the store, though she recommends looking for an independent contractor, who sets their own rates. (Find one here.)

“Imakes more sense for one person to shop for many families than for many people to shop for themselves,” she says. “It is minimizing the number of people out there. 

And in the two weeks or so since Oregonians were told to stay home to stop the virus from spreading, she says grocery stores have noticeably emptied out, and she’s noticing more people being aware of social distancing, though not all the time. 

“I was just in Fred Meyer, and there was a whole family ahead of me, with probably a preschooler who was handling everything, and the parents aren’t saying a word,” says Carrico. “When there are two parents there, one of them should stay home. Designate a shopper, and have it be that same person.” 

She’s not ruling out further strikes, though she acknowledges that it’s a tough ask for gig workers, who can’t afford to stay out of work day after day. 

Every single shopper that I know, whether for  Instacart or small business owner wants to be of service,” she says. “We want to help. 

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