Instacart workers slam pandemic working conditions, call for work stoppage

“We are afraid that we are going to help the spread of this virus rather than mitigate it," one worker and organizer said.

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By Cyrus Farivar

Instacart shoppers and a labor activism group known as the Gig Workers Collective have called for a strike of the online shopping service on Monday to protest what they say is a critical lack of “proper safety precautions” for the over 150,000 people that shop and deliver groceries nationwide.

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed many consumers to begin relying on companies like Instacart, which hires people to shop for and delivery groceries, like Uber and Lyft for car rides. But those workers have expressed concern that they are putting themselves at risk of catching the coronavirus.

Instacart, based in San Francisco, announced on March 23 that it would be drastically expanding its workforce by 300,000 across North America in response to the overwhelming demand.

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CEO Apoorva Mehta wrote in that announcement that “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.”

The frustrated Instacart shoppers now say that is not sufficient, arguing that the offer “not only falls short, but isn’t even being honored.”

Instacart declined to respond to specific questions but said in a statement that its workers health and safety was its "first priority," adding that it had announced some new changes for shoppers on Friday.

Vanessa Bain, an Instacart shopper based in Menlo Park, California, and the leader of the Gig Workers Collective, said that she stopped working on March 13 in an effort to comply with California’s order for people to stay in their homes.

However, she acknowledged that conventional grocery workers and delivery workers such as herself have been designated as essential.

“As essential as our labor is, it is somehow unworthy of protection,” she said. “We are afraid that we are going to help the spread of this virus rather than mitigate it. Those with the means don’t have to face the risks that we have to face.”

Instacart workers have held strikes over working conditions since 2017, with little substantive effect. For years, many labor activists have argued that Instacart shoppers are misclassified as independent contractors, which denies them access to health benefits, workers compensation, sick pay and other benefits typically granted full-time employees.

“All of our previous actions fell on deaf ears,” said Matthew Telles, a longtime Instacart shopper based in suburban Chicago, who has helped organize previous labor actions.

Telles was a named plaintiff in a misclassification lawsuit brought against Instacart in Los Angeles County Superior Court, where he received $978 as part of a settlement finalized over two years ago.

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“Lasted a whole two days,” he said. “Then paid for gas, car payment and food.”

Last month, a San Diego County judge ruled on a September 2019 lawsuit brought by the San Diego City Attorney’s office that Instacart had probably misclassified its workers, issuing a preliminary injunction. However, that ruling was stayed while Instacart appealed the ruling.

On Thursday, however, the San Diego city attorney’s office filed an emergency petition with an appellate court, asking it to now overrule the lower court.

“Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has grown, the harm to Instacart’s Shoppers has magnified and grown in numbers,” Kevin King, a deputy city attorney, wrote in the filing. “At this point, both harms are growing and inconceivable in magnitude. The People ask this Court to intervene and ensure tens of thousands of Shoppers are guaranteed protections as they put their lives at risk to provide an essential public service.”

Ezra Kaplan contributed.