Instacart workers plan a big nationwide strike on Monday for coronavirus protection

March 28, 2020, 1:13 AM UTC

Workers at grocery delivery service Instacart plan a strike on Monday to force the company to better protect them against the coronavirus outbreak, setting the stage for a mass disruption of customer orders at a time of soaring growth.

 “We’re really trying to light a fire under Instacart’s feet,” said Vanessa Bain, a member of the activist committee organizing the strike. “Our intention is not to bring Instacart’s operations to a grinding halt, but if that’s what it takes to get what we need, then we’ll keep elevating.”

The group, which has access to a network of 15,000 Instacart workers, said they’ve repeatedly asked for Instacart to provide them with personal safety gear, $5 hazard pay for each order, and access to sick pay for at-risk workers and those who have coronavirus symptoms. The workers plan to strike until the company, which they say has largely ignored them, meets their demands.

The strike would take place during one of Instacart’s busiest periods, according to CEO Apoorva Mehta. As the coronavirus spreads across the nation, people are turning to grocery delivery services to prevent them from being exposed to the illness in stores and from having to wait in long checkout lines.

To fill the demand, Instacart is trying to quickly expand its workforce, recently announcing plans to hire 300,000 delivery people.

In response to the threatened strike, Instacart said it’s working “proactively” to take “precautionary” measures to operate safely. On Friday, it extended window during which it would provide 14 days of pay to workers who are diagnosed with the virus or placed under mandatory quarantine, from April 8 to May 8. It also announced a bonus of up to $200 for employees, which doesn’t include Instacart’s delivery people, bonuses for workers who meet certain thresholds for the number orders they handle, and the ability to deliver alcohol by getting a scanned image of person’s ID from a distance instead of a written customer signature.

“The health and safety of our entire community — shoppers, customers, and employees — is our first priority,” the company said in a statement. “We absolutely respect the rights of shoppers to provide us feedback and voice their concerns. It’s a valuable way for us to continuously make improvements to the shopper experience, and we’re committed to supporting this important community during this critical time.” 

But Bain says Instacart’s response doesn’t actually address the core problems. Workers cannot receive sick pay unless they have a doctor’s note saying they are under mandatory quarantine or have been diagnosed with coronavirus, even though testing is still largely unavailable and many workers don’t have health insurance to cover a doctor’s visit, she said. On top of that, many workers have pre-existing conditions that increase their chances of getting severely ill from the virus, and they are not covered by the current policy. Meanwhile, shoppers still won’t have the cleaning supplies they need to disinfect shopping carts or wipe their hands before handing products to customers. 

“Customers have a false sense of security from ordering from services that keep them in their homes,” Bain said. “But we know this virus can live on grocery bags.”

And that fear alone is already disrupting Instacart’s service even before the scheduled strike, according to some customers. Many people have to wait a week or longer to get their groceries delivered, and, when they are delivered, some items are often missing due to store shortages. And some shoppers complain that they’re getting charged for items they never receive and can’t get ahold of company representatives to fix the problem.

Carol Symon, a 70-year-old resident in Fort Worth, Tex., said she recently tried Instacart for the first time because she feared her age coupled with her asthma made it too dangerous for her to go out. She ordered 15 items from the service, which promised to deliver in three days.

“I got an email saying, ‘Your order has been delivered,’” she said. “I went outside and there was nothing on the front porch, nothing on the back porch.”

Symon said she was alerted that all the items were out of stock except for a can of V8 juice, for which she was charged along with the delivery and service fees. She’s challenging the charge with her credit card company.

Grace Stroud, also a 70-year-old first time shopper, had a similar experience when she placed a $180 order on Instacart. She didn’t receive her order but was charged for some grape tomatoes along with the service fee and delivery charge.

“I tried to call a number and they said the wait time was 59 minutes,” Stroud said. “At this point, I’ve just written it out of my check book.”

But service is about to get even less reliable if even some of the 15,000 shoppers strike on Monday. This is the first time Instacart workers are striking indefinitely after previously staging one-day walkouts and other protests urging the company to improve working conditions like changing the tip policies and providing more transparency into how their pay is determined.

Bain said the final straw this time was Instacart’s announcement that it was hiring 300,000 new delivery people.

“It felt like they knew we were going to get sick, and they need to replace us,” she said. “Three hundred thousand people will be exposed to the risk we face. That’s’ terrifying.”

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