Belabored Stories: When Gig Workers Are Emergency Responders

Belabored Stories: When Gig Workers Are Emergency Responders

Instacart workers are on strike today to demand the company recognize the importance of their grocery delivery service amid the pandemic.

Read more of our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here.

Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at


As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the country, Instacart, the grocery delivery app, has gone from a convenient way for busy people to shop by proxy to an emergency response service for millions of Americans sheltering in place. Instacart shoppers, with their signature green totes, are now a lifeline for people who are immunocompromised or otherwise reluctant to venture outside as a health precaution.

But today, as grocery orders explode, Instacart shoppers are going on strike, to pressure the company to start treating them like actual workers and pay them wages that reflect the importance of their service amid the pandemic, along with the risks that they brave whenever they wade through a supermarket aisle.

The striking Instacart shoppers are pushing for basic protections on the job, according to a post by Gig Workers Collective (GWC), an advocacy network for app-based workers. They want hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, of course, to protect themselves and their clients. But they also want hazard pay—adding about $5 per order, plus a default tip in the app that would add 10 percent of each order total.

Perhaps most important, the strikers demand a meaningful paid leave policy. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the company announced it would offer two weeks of paid time off for workers, but only for those who are mandatorily quarantined for or diagnosed with COVID-19. Given the extremely limited access to testing, even those who meet those requirements may struggle to redeem their benefits. According to GWC, Instacart “knows it’s virtually impossible to meet their qualifications and is ignoring Shoppers’ pleas for more substantial and preventative help.” (In response to the workers’ demands, on Sunday the company extended the expiration date for the paid leave policy from April 8 to May 6. It also offered hand sanitizer and slightly amended its tipping procedures. GWC called the reforms “insulting” and proceeded with the strike plans.)

Vanessa Bain, a Bay Area–based veteran Instacart Shopper and GWC organizer, said that in her area, “an astronomical surge in volume of orders” has led to a five-day order backlog, along with an accompanying rise in pay that is likely to attract many new workers to the app. Though the order boost may help offset the long downward slide in wages that led to a nationwide Instacart strike and boycott late last year, Bain stressed that “there is obviously an immense danger in being in a grocery store all day long.”

In mid-March, Bain decided to stop doing deliveries for the foreseeable future. She is concerned about endangering the three elderly family members she lives with. “I really can’t risk contracting the virus and passing it along to them.”

In addition to their direct action, GWC is delivering critical legal information to its online network of about 15,000 workers and advising app-based workers about their labor rights and whatever public entitlements they can access, such as Medicaid and food stamps. Instacart shoppers, like other gig economy workers, are typically classified as self-employed and thus lack crucial benefits like unemployment insurance and paid sick days and do not receive employer-sponsored health insurance.

Many other Instacart shoppers are, like Bain, afraid of potentially exposing their family members, she said, but they cannot afford to stop shopping. So GWC’s main goal now, Bain says, is

informing workers of what their rights are, because most people feel like they have to work because they have no choice: They have to work or else they starve, they have to work or else they don’t have a car, they have to work or else they will be evicted, and so getting information out to as many workers as possible about what their rights are in a situation like this has been my strategy.

In addition to sharing practical information, Bain wants the pandemic to be a moral and political awakening as well. “What I want workers to know is that . . . our work is precarious by its structure,” she said. “This is not a moral failing, this is a structural failing, and that it’s absolutely and totally not only fine, but essential, that they rely on the existing social safety programs and networks that exist to make it through [the crisis].”

When thousands of Instacart shoppers shut down their apps in the face of a swelling public-health crisis for workers and consumers, they might just force platforms like Instacart, along with the government, to acknowledge that their gig work is not only a “real job,” but an essential one as well.

Bain pointed to the fact that the pandemic has already spurred some unprecedented relief for the working class, including eviction moratoriums in some cities, as proof that

the crisis is and always has been capitalism. It’s just that the lens by which we see the crisis now is coronavirus, basically. . . . There have been a lot of us like myself and thousands of other workers that have been screaming into a void about our need for things like sick pay and workers’ compensation, and proper classification, and all of these things that function as a safety net for workers. I think that this has highlighted the need for it, and [also shows that] these things can actually happen when there is urgency.

Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.