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Instacart workers strike over safety; company claims ‘no impact’ on deliveries

A Whole Foods cashier rings up groceries bought by an Instacart shopper in 2014.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Grocery delivery service Instacart says a nationwide strike is having “absolutely no impact” on its business, which is booming in response to a flood of orders from customers confined to their homes by lockdown orders and fears of exposure to the coronavirus.

Citing the risk they’re taking in exposing themselves, Instacart workers, who procure items ordered through the on-demand platform and drive items to customers’ homes, stopped work Monday.

Strike leaders have called for the company to provide workers with protective supplies, such as hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and hazard pay. They also want considerations for workers who are more vulnerable to severe illness from the virus, such as those with preexisting health conditions.

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With a backlog of orders in some of Instacart’s biggest markets, workers would appear to have a degree of leverage they have lacked in the past, when previous labor actions achieved only modest concessions. “This is a different moment because of what really is at stake,” Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at UC Hastings, said. “They’ve become so essential to so many people and are probably the only people that many of us are in contact with in the state of self-isolation.”

But it’s unclear how widespread participation in the current strike has been, or whether customers are heeding calls to honor it by holding off on placing orders. A group that helped organize the strike, Gig Workers Collective, said that “at minimum thousands of workers” participated in the stoppage on its first day.

But Instacart said that in spite of the strike there were 40% more workers on the platform today than the same time last week. It’s unclear whether that number represents workers who fulfilled orders Monday, or simply those who were online. The company also cited record-breaking sales. “Over the last 72 hours, more groceries were sold on our platform than ever before,” said Instacart spokesperson Natalia Montalvo.

Montalvo declined to comment directly on the workers’ demand for an additional $5 per order in hazard pay. Accusing the company of “fail[ing] to respond to Shoppers in a way that is respectful, moral, or even just considerate to other human beings,” Gig Workers Collective said the stoppage would continue.

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Instacart workers are among the many couriers and on-demand contractors who are demanding more protections as customers become increasingly reliant on their services. As The Times reported, in addition to Instacart shoppers, several Amazon and DoorDash workers say the companies aren’t doing enough to keep them safe or compensate them for the health risks involved with delivering goods during the outbreak.

On Sunday, the San Francisco-based firm said it would provide workers with hand sanitizer and would change the customer tip setting so it would default to the percentage the customer last used — or if the customer last tipped less than 5%, it would default to 5%. The company also said it would remove a default option for no tips, which it said would make it “less likely” that customers would decide not to tip, since they would have to enter zero as the tip amount manually.

These concessions came after Instacart said earlier this month that part-time shoppers would be able to accrue sick pay and that workers could get up to 14 days of paid sick leave if they tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, or were placed into mandatory quarantine or isolation by a government health agency. The 14 days of paid sick leave are available until next week.

“Our goal is to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers, while also proactively taking the appropriate precautionary measures to operate safely,” Instacart said in a statement before the strike started.

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Gig Workers Collective called for the benefits to be extended beyond next week and said the additional paid sick leave should also be available to workers who hadn’t contracted the disease but had a doctor’s note saying they had a preexisting condition that could make them more susceptible to severe illness from the coronavirus.

“Instacart knows it’s virtually impossible to meet their qualifications and is ignoring [workers’] pleas for more substantial and preventative help,” the group said.

Complicating matters is the company’s ongoing effort to keep treating workers as contractors rather than employees. In California, Instacart is part of a $110-million campaign to fight off a labor law that makes it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.

The company may be trying to tread carefully when offering workers protections to ensure no lines that distinguish them as company employees are being crossed, Dubal said. “I think their actions in the midst of this pandemic really, unfortunately, are being guided by that fear of being legally recognized as an employer if they provide safety trainings, if they provide instrumentalities for safety, et cetera,” she said.

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Worker safety is also at the center of a strike Monday by workers at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in New York City’s Staten Island borough. The workers are calling for the facility to be closed for at least two weeks and sanitized, according to Bloomberg.

Amazon said in a statement that it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe, including “tripling down on deep cleaning” and making sure workers were keeping “safe distances.”


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