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Instacart Workers Say the Grocery App Is Manipulating Them Into Low-Paying Deliveries

The gig economy continues to squeeze workers to keep customers happy and prices low 

A shopper for Instacart uses the app while selecting produce Denver Post Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

Despite stiff competition, Instacart is continuing to lobby for the title of worst delivery app employer. After getting caught using customer’s tips to subsidize worker pay in February, contract workers for the grocery delivery service are now charging that the company is manipulating them into taking jobs they don’t want, downgrading them when they refuse, putting them at risk by hiding delivery addresses.

In dozens of interviews, Instacart drivers known as “shoppers” described to Bloomberg a system in which the app made it nearly impossible to decline low-paying delivery tasks and punished workers with a demerits system when they chose not to accept a delivery. As it works now, workers are first pinged through the app with a task which only offers an “accept” button. The obnoxious pinging lasts for four minutes and can only be stopped by silencing the phone, closing the app, or shutting off the phone entirely. Occasionally, at the end of the process, the driver gets pinged with the same delivery all over again and may receive a text or call from Instacart staff.

If a batch is rejected, workers may have their delivery opportunities taken away for the rest of the day and their “reliability” score decreased — meaning they receive fewer delivery opportunities. The app does helpfully offer workers a chance to explain why they rejected a batch, but the only options are: the delivery is too big, too small or “other.” This makes it more difficult for contractors to explain issues such as car trouble. In essence, workers have a manager overseeing their productivity without any of the benefits of being a regular employee.

Instacart shoppers are also expressing major concerns about the app’s new “on-demand” system, where a list of batches is served to multiple drivers within a larger region and the first person who clicks “accept” gets the trip. Unlike the regular Instacart format, “on-demand” only provides a generalized description of the location of the batch with a neighborhood and a streetview-type photo — similar to an update the company was criticized for in May 2018. Shoppers are provided with information about what’s in order the number of items, store, distance, and estimated value of the batch, but not specific items. Instacart representatives say this is a way to protect the privacy of users, but shoppers tell Bloomberg that it makes it more difficult to evaluate the value of an order and determine if its worth it.

Drivers also say in statements to Fast Company that address-less system puts them at risk, pointing to instances in which shoppers encountered dangerous and inappropriate customers. One shopper told Buzzfeed in 2018 that a customer exposed himself during a delivery. Instacart promised to file a police report after the incident and ban the customer. However, as the shopper later discovered the report was never filed and another contractor was sent to the same address and had a nearly identical experience.

In statements to Bloomberg, Instacart denies many of the allegations, spinning the four minute buzzer as providing adequate time for shoppers to make a decision and claiming that some workers like the reliability scoring system. As for features that kick drivers out of the app for rejecting batches, the spokesperson says they can return after a 30-minute period. Instacart also tells Fast Company that the app provides options for workers to quit a delivery if they feel uncomfortable with the destination, but at least one worker disputes that claim.

This is a recurring problem with gig economy work where the real price of a service isn’t necessarily transferred to customers and delivery drivers are expected to absorb the cost of inefficient deliveries. Instacart paid out a $4.6 million settlement in a class action lawsuit in 2017 after contractors filed a lawsuit over a controversial service fee. Similarly to Instacart, DoorDash has been criticized for using larger tips as a way to avoid directly compensating workers. Uber Eats has continued to expand into Mexico despite the fact that five of its underpaid couriers have been killed in traffic accidents in six months. Food delivery companies are demonstrating through their actions that profit is more important than the livelihoods and lives of their workers.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect additional information about the on-demand feature including that an image and neighborhood are provided.

Instacart Hounds Workers to Take Jobs That Aren’t Worth It [Bloomberg]
Instacart Drivers Worry That New Policy Hiding Some Customer Addresses May Put Them at Risk [Fast Company]
All Delivery Coverage [E]
All Food Tech Coverage [E]

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