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I Had to Rely on Food Stamps While Working Full-Time for Instacart

Instacart shoppers fulfill orders for delivery at a grocery store in downtown Los Angeles, California, United States, November 9, 2015. © 2015 Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the past three years, I have shopped and delivered food for Instacart to thousands of homes and businesses in the San Francisco area. I rarely take a day off and usually work seven days a week. But I struggle to make ends meet, no matter how hard I work.

Instacart seems to be doing everything in their power to keep it that way. Together with other gig companies, they launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to support a ballot initiative known as Prop 22, which creates a special exemption from California employment laws just for these companies. For us workers, Prop 22 means no minimum wage protections. No unemployment insurance. And inadequate medical coverage.

There have been many times when I urgently needed more protection.

Over the past years, Instacart has hired so many new shoppers that I often don’t get any orders. I would sit in my car waiting for an order to appear, without making any money. Sometimes I would make as little as $50 a day, before expenses. Driving to the city and back costs $25 in bridge tolls and gas alone.  Some weeks I’d make $600, others $200.

In 2018, Instacart introduced an algorithm to calculate our pay. I don't quite understand how the algorithm works because Instacart is secretive about it. What I know is that it has driven down earnings. There were times that in 2018 my pay dropped so low I had to go on financial assistance and get food stamps to afford to eat.  While Instacart has made millions of dollars in profit this year alone, I am barely surviving. 

Much of our pay consists of tips – for me, it's almost half. But over the years, there have repeatedly been problems with our tips. In 2018, Instacart said that they would pay us at least $10 for each batch of orders (which can contain the orders of up to three customers). It turns out that they were using our tips to subsidize the $10 minimum pay they had guaranteed, instead of giving us the tips we deserve on top of our base pay. And we continue to fight for an increase in the app’s default suggested tip from 5 percent to 10 percent, as it was originally before Instacart cut it in 2016.

Pay is not the only issue. Instacart didn’t provide me support in a time of crisis. In 2019, after I completed a delivery, my car broke down near the Bay Bridge. Because Instacart says I’m a contractor, it doesn’t have to help me with repairs. I couldn’t afford the tow truck and slept in the car because I was afraid the city would tow it. Recovering from the cost of fixing the car almost put me on the streets.

And all that was before the pandemic.

At the height of Covid-19, I was working crazy hours. I worked at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I felt like I was doing a service to my community. People needed food and were scared to go to the grocery store. My older and immune-compromised customers were terrified. I was terrified too, mainly because I didn’t receive enough protective equipment to go about my job safely. I begged Instacart for hand sanitizers and masks, but crickets.

In June, Instacart prompted me to update my profile picture on the app. But I was deactivated for two weeks because I uploaded the photograph instead of emailing it. That’s two weeks without a paycheck.

I tried to join other shoppers in filing a wage claim as a misclassified employee for all my unpaid active time. But I didn’t save screenshots and the hours previously shown on my daily statements suddenly disappeared from the app. I called and emailed Instacart requesting my information. Each time they promised to send it within 24 hours, but I never received anything.

I love my job, but I want the same protections as other workers. We needed these protections before the pandemic, and we need them now more than ever.

Instacart and other gig companies say that employee protections will cost us the flexibility to work when we want, but this is a scare tactic. These companies can find ways to preserve some flexibility while giving us the protections we deserve.  

I see Instacart spinning facts and instilling fear in shoppers so they vote against their own interests. I call on my customers and others using our services to have our backs this time to support laws that protect us workers, not the companies. California voters should vote NO on Prop 22, for workers.

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Ginger Anne Farr is an Instacart shopper in the Bay Area. She told her story to Lena Simet and Amos Toh at Human Rights Watch.

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