Under the stay-at-home order, Philadelphia restaurants have transformed overnight into e-commerce operations, their front windows retooled into loading bays. And services like Instacart and Shipt are booming, as the appetite for grocery delivery grows larger than ever.
“People are being forced into food delivery, because there are no other jobs you can just easily walk into, even if it is paying drastically less than what you used to make,” said Angela Vogel, a member organizer of the Philadelphia Drivers’ Union.
But, with contactless delivery, the thousands of gig workers feeding that hunger are almost invisible. Who’s doing that work? How much are they paid? And what risks are they taking on?
Here’s what they told us.
“At first, it was easy money — incredibly easy,” said Jenifer Green, 44, a single mother of three from Pottstown, who started working as a shopper for Instacart in February after being laid off from her job as a school director. She’d work 25 or 30 hours a week, for $1,000 to $1,500.
Then, the pandemic hit. Workers held a strike, demanding hazard pay and protective gear. And Instacart hired 300,000 new shoppers, to keep up with a 500% increase in orders. The company reports the average order is 35% larger, but payments are, on average, 60% higher.
During the strike, Green decided to work only when there was a peak pay boost in effect.
Even so, Green says her payouts plummeted. The app crashes “constantly,” sometimes wiping out orders mid-checkout. She loses hours texting customers about out-of-stock items, and waiting in long lines. And she’s contending with bots that snatch up high-paying orders fast.
On a recent day, she completed five shopping trips, put 175 miles on her car — and earned just $62, she said.
Lately, tip-baiting — luring shoppers with large tips, then canceling the tips after delivery — has been rampant, Green said. About one-third of her tips have been pulled back since the pandemic began, despite her 5-star rating. (Instacart says this happens in only 0.05% of orders.)
“It’s just demoralizing and dehumanizing,” Green said. “We’re considered an essential worker.”
Green herself has repeatedly been hospitalized with asthma.
“I shouldn’t be out there right now, but I have no choice,” she said. “I have no income coming in.”
Colin Giering, 21, a new Temple University graduate, started working as a Caviar bike courier in April. It was a way to explore the city, get some exercise, and help those stuck at home.
On his best shift, he made $100 in three hours, delivering seven meals. “I was very happy with that!”
On May 3, he was hit by a car — left with a broken collarbone and a concussion.
“It’s maybe not talked about enough, how dangerous it can be if you’re out late at night — or you’ve been doing it all day and exhaustion sets in.”
Justin Smith, 23, takes his electric bike on the Broad Street Line from Olney into Center City each day to deliver for Uber Eats, DoorDash, Caviar, GrubHub, or Postmates. He starts around 10 a.m., works lunch, takes a break, delivers dinners, then heads home around 9 p.m., earning $150 to $200 a day.
“I like the freedom!” he said. “You work when you want, stop when you want.”
During the pandemic, he said, pay has improved. Uber Eats and GrubHub sent free masks and gloves. And his risk seems low, since pickup and delivery are contactless.
“As messed up as it sounds, the coronavirus has benefited me,” he said. “People are staying at home and they have to get their food somehow. I feel in a way I’m helping. I’m helping restaurants stay in business.”
He makes $18 to $24 an hour by being strategic: He only works between Washington Avenue and Vine Street. He avoids McDonald’s and Popeyes — their customers rarely tip. He does not get out of bed for a breakfast shift.
Smith works to support himself and his mother. He’s also saving up to enroll in school to become a professional wrestler.