- Interview by
- Jeremy Gong
Instacart workers across the country are walking off the job today. They say it’s an emergency protest against unsafe working conditions and low pay during the coronavirus pandemic.
Instacart allows customers to send in orders that workers then pick up at grocery stores and deliver to customers’ homes. Needless to say, it has become very popular in the last few weeks.
In an open letter, Instacart worker-organizers with Gig Workers Collective detailed the danger and humiliation that they face right now thanks to what they say is the company’s negligence, even as “Instacart has turned this pandemic into a PR campaign, portraying itself the hero of families that are sheltered-in-place, isolated, or quarantined.” Instacart, workers say, is not providing adequate protective materials like hand sanitizer or paid sick leave.
And while many grocery workers have fought for and won hazard pay for working during the pandemic, Instacart is still keeping pay low despite the danger and long delays at grocery stores. Instacart workers aren’t compensated for the time lost to delays due to long lines and empty shelves since they’re paid per job and not per hour.
All of this is happening during a purported boom in business for the company, which is claiming it will hire an additional 300,000 workers during the pandemic.
Jeremy Gong spoke with Sarah Clarke of Gig Workers Collective about the strike. Sarah, 38, has worked for multiple gig companies, including for Instacart for three years. Since 2016, Sarah and other Instacart workers began organizing to protect pay and benefits against the company’s cuts.
As described in this letter to Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta last year, these workers have had to face terrible attacks by the company over and over again. But they’ve also fought back, and won, repeatedly. This has helped to raise the profile of the conditions of gig workers of all kinds, who many now understand are mistreated, misclassified, and underpaid — even during a pandemic.
Why did you start organizing for gig workers’ rights?
I used to have more “normal” jobs before gig work. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have anything to compare gig work to, or realize that this treatment is so wrong. Before gig work, I had never been treated so poorly. That’s why I started fighting.
I don’t consider myself a troublemaker, and I usually get along with everyone. I had done Instacart for a year, and I was really happy doing it. Then they issued the first pay cut around November 2016. They replaced tips with a really shitty service fee and implied to customers that the service fee was going to us, but it wasn’t. Instacart was keeping it. It seemed so shady — it was awful.
That’s when we were like, “This is fucking insane.” We felt like if we didn’t do something about it, no one else would. So that’s when we took things into our own hands.
We organized a walk-off in 2016, and they reinstated the tips immediately. They shit themselves, because they weren’t expecting us to do anything like that. I think they got really scared and caved. We were like, “Holy shit, that actually worked!”
The two other main organizers and I got on the phone to talk about it, and we were just laughing. We couldn’t believe it. Especially because we’ve never done anything like that before.
I try to tell people that anyone can do it. I talked to another gig worker who works for a different company, and they said they can’t do what we did because, “We’re not on your level.” I said, “No, you are on our level. We were able to do this on our couches within twenty-four hours. You can do this.”
You’ve had to fight them basically every year since then, though, right?
Every year around October and November, business slows down. Instacart doesn’t have as many orders as usual, and they don’t need workers as much. That’s when they tend to mess with our pay. So that’s why, every year, around October and November, something big happens, and that’s when we need to step in.
But the problem is that Instacart must have said, “We can’t give into their demands. No matter what they ask for, we have to ignore them.” So I think that that’s the problem now: no matter what we ask for, they’re saying to themselves, “Don’t give in, don’t give in.”
Why are you striking? What are your demands?
We have four demands.
The first one is for the most basic safety standards, like hand sanitizer. Our concern isn’t just about us getting sick and dying, it’s about our customers. We’re petrified of passing it on to our customers if we get it.
[Editor’s note: after this interview was conducted, Instacart announced it will begin providing hand sanitizer to workers one week from now. Clarke says that they could have done this weeks ago, but “on the bright side, it shows that a strike will work to change their behavior.”]
Safety standards would be a very small expense for the company, and they won’t do it. But they were just bragging about how, because business is booming now, they’re hiring 300,000 workers. The current workforce is 170,000. And they’re incentivizing current workers to refer their friends to work for the company. Right now, they’re paying up to $2,500 per worker per referral.
They clearly have the money to pay for safety. But instead of putting money into their current workforce to protect them, they’re spending so much money to replace us. Their attitude is basically, “If they die, we’ll just replace them.” It’s fucking wild.
The second demand is related to paid leave. The company says they are offering fourteen days of paid leave, to get good PR. However, you have to test positive for coronavirus to qualify for the paid time off. We all know it’s very hard to get tested at all, so there are workers who might be sick with the virus who still have to work because they can’t get tested and aren’t getting paid time off.
There’s another group of workers that have preexisting conditions and are at high risk of dying from the virus. We are demanding that this group of workers also get paid time off.
There are workers who have been working this job for four years full time, and they have a heart condition, so now they are afraid to work. But without paid time off, they can’t afford not to work. So they’re basically being told that they have to work right now even though they might die.
Instacart knows this and is preying on these workers. Instacart knows they’ll work under any conditions if they have to. This walk-off is for them, to protect Instacart workers.
The third demand is extending paid leave. Right now, Instacart is only offering it for those who qualify by April 8. We need an extension. Unlike Donald Trump, we don’t think this has an end date anytime soon. So, until there is an actual end date, we should be covered.
The fourth demand is hazard pay. It’s what they should give people who are working in conditions like this.
The average pay per order for Instacart workers is $7. Some orders take an hour or more given the conditions in grocery stores during the pandemic. We shouldn’t be risking our lives for $7.
Gig workers are exempt from the shelter-in-place orders because we’re considered essential workers. We’re getting sent to stores where people are getting sick, and it’s dangerous for us and the grocery workers at these stores. So we should be getting hazard pay.
It directly affects the customers, too. If we get coronavirus at the store, fulfilling an order, we’re passing it on to customers. It isn’t just about us. We don’t want to get the customers sick. Especially because a lot of customers are high risk — that’s why they’re using Instacart. We want to protect them.
How many workers are involved in the strike?
It’s hard to give an exact number. We have a Facebook group called Instacart Shoppers (National) of over fifteen thousand workers, and we spread our actions there. And we have a “five-person rule,” where we tell everyone to spread [the information] to five people who aren’t in the group. Usually when we have walk-offs, we take about a month to prepare. But there’s so much press about this that it’s hard for workers to not know about it. So I think a lot of workers will walk off.
The Facebook group is really active now. People feel like, “This is fucking insane, we have to do something.” Without social media, a lot of organizing wouldn’t happen. It’s perfect for people like us.
Some people have expressed fear about walking out, but organizers are explaining that we have no other choice. Conditions are so bad. And people understand that. And even if we don’t win our demands right now, it’s so important for us to get this info out to the public, so that they understand just how bad this company is and how bad they treat us.
In a way, we’re already winning that battle.
Your work is clearly essential to our society right now. Do you feel your work is being valued as it should be during this crisis?
No, I’ve never felt that. We’re so used to being treated like shit. This is a perfect example. They clearly don’t care about us.
It’s such a unique time, and proper precautions need to be put in place quickly. People are dying, people are getting very sick. And it’s not like fourteen days of paid time off for people who really need it is the jackpot. It will be like $1,000, just a little bit of money to help workers get through this. If they get the virus, they will have to pay more than that for treatment anyway.
There’s no excuse. In my opinion, it’s absolutely monstrous to be ignoring this.
Since you announced your walk-off, has Instacart responded?
Instacart emailed journalists bragging that they’re helping us even more with “safety and health benefits.” But these don’t at all address safety or health. They’re only meeting one of the demands, which is extending benefits by one month. Since they’re ignoring everything else, including the testing problem, it doesn’t do much for us.
Why did you start Gig Workers Collective?
About three years ago, we gathered a group of ten other women who were helping us, and we formed Gig Workers Collective as a way to have our own thing that is by gig workers, for gig workers. We’re hoping down the road to get funding so we can do it full time. Right now, we’re organizing while also working full time.
For about a year before we started it, when we wanted to do something, larger organizations would try to help us. But they would end up using our ideas as their own, and some of them were getting grants based on our work while giving us nothing. So we just wanted to keep total control and remain independent, and we feel like this is our best way to do it.
We’re not traditional organizers. But I think it’s been pretty effective. We were able to do this strike on our own, just gig workers coming together. No outside organizations are helping us.
What would you say to a gig worker who is afraid to take action like you are now?
The issues arising within these companies, the problems that these workers are having, are so big and so important. And they’re things that the general public actually cares about. It’s extremely important for workers to get this information out there.
The worst thing you could do, even if they don’t give in to your demands, is to just stay quiet. You absolutely cannot do that.
Right now, it sounds like we’re really succeeding, but that wasn’t always the case. There were times when the company totally fucked people over. For example, we did a protest one time, and they responded by removing the last bonus, and they wanted it to seem like they were punishing us for protesting. They wanted workers to believe that protesting hurts them.
But the majority of workers understood that they were going to do this pay cut anyway, and a lot of people are still on our side.
How did you overcome your own fear when you organized that first walkout?
Because it was three of us, I didn’t have to feel like it was all on me. Immediately after the protest, a lot of people supported us. It all happened so quickly, and there was so much positive reinforcement. I don’t even think I questioned what I was doing or why.
I do remember that my husband and I were scared, thinking they were going to come after me. Especially because three or four years ago, the news stories were always different. Now there are reporters whose job it is to cover these things. But back then, everyone was very pro gig work. It wasn’t until the #DeleteUber incident in 2017 that people started realizing the companies were actually really bad. Before that, we had a really hard time getting journalists to cover our protest. Now there are journalists who are dying to cover us.
I think a lot more people are siding with us, partly because socialism is a lot more popular now. In the past year, people have come to care more about these issues.
What’s next, and what will the strike look like?
Workers are planning to just not work on Monday. It doesn’t sound like Instacart is going to do anything, thinking they will let this wave of bad press pass.
We’re just going to keep fighting and getting this out there. I think a lot of the public is shocked and disgusted by Instacart’s treatment of us. So we have to keep nailing them and getting our word out.