The strike was announced Friday. Two days later, Instacart responded: It would provide hand sanitizer to workers and make it easier for them to set a default tipping percentage. The Gig Workers Collective, the group organizing the strike, said that the company’s response fell short of its demands and that the strike is still on.
And one thing is clear: In this global pandemic, essential workers have power. The question is, how much power?
The Instacart strike is the latest example of essential workers agitating for stronger protections during the crisis. Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, bus drivers in Detroit, and poultry plant workers in Georgia have all staged walkouts to protest working conditions as coronavirus spreads at an alarming rate.
Workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, were planning a sick-out Tuesday. The concerns of the Instacart workers, whom home-deliver groceries ordered online or through a smartphone app, mirror the concerns of grocery workers across the U.S.
What sets the Instacart strike apart, though, is that these workers are independent contractors — which means they’re excluded from the labor protections afforded to employees. And, most of them aren’t members of a union, meaning they don’t have the same support systems that union members have, such as strike pay. If Instacart shoppers don’t work, they don’t get paid. They also don’t have the infrastructure of a traditional union to help organize a nationwide strike.
That makes their strike all the more radical. They’re relying on the fact that Instacart is hurting for labor right now. The company announced it would hire more than 300,000 shoppers during the pandemic, more than doubling its workforce.
“The last few weeks have been the busiest in Instacart’s history and our teams are working around the clock to reliably and safely serve all members of our community,” Apoorva Mehta, chief executive of the San Francisco-based company, said in a statement about the hirings.
Because Gig Workers Collective is a grassroots group, as opposed to a union that collects dues and could survey its members, it’s hard to know how many Instacart shoppers are participating in the strike. An online group used to organize Instacart protests has more than 15,000 shoppers, said organizer Alyssa Longobardi. She estimated that a majority are striking.
But other Instacart shoppers have said in a Facebook group that they will still work because they need the money.
Longobardi, who is based in Montgomery County and has been organizing Instacart workers over the last year, said one of the group’s primary concerns is getting workers the 14 days of sick pay the company said it would pay to workers affected by the crisis — including those who tested positive for the coronavirus and those who cannot work because they are under quarantine. But Longobardi said she has yet to see one person receive the pay.
Workers have to prove they received a positive test result in order to be paid, but some don’t have access to testing, Longobardi said. In Philadelphia, officials have told people not to get tested unless they have symptoms and are high-risk, such as those over 65 and those with compromised immunity.
Instacart declined to comment on how many workers have gotten sick pay and what the requirements are to do so.
In a statement to the website Vice, the company said: “The health and safety of our entire community — shoppers, customers, and employees — is our first priority."
“Our goal is to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers, while also proactively taking the appropriate precautionary measures to operate safely," the company said. "We want to underscore that 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.”
About 100 Amazon workers, meanwhile, walked out of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., on Monday, demanding the facility be shut and cleaned during a paid time off after a co-worker tested positive for the virus.
Amazon said it has taken aggressive steps to safeguard its employees from the virus, including enhanced cleaning and sanitation and social distancing enforcement. At the Staten Island facility, which employs 4,500 people, Amazon implemented daily temperature screenings.
Last year, Uber and Lyft drivers, including those in Philadelphia, orchestrated a similar protest against what they described as pay cuts and unfair working conditions. Drivers from more than two dozen cities and countries participated, making it what one expert called the biggest coordinated gig economy action of its kind.
Despite that, it didn’t result in major changes for most Uber and Lyft drivers, suggesting the difficulty of wielding gig worker power to influence such corporations.