People

Crisis puts delivery workers on risky front lines. Will it change their futures?

Walkoffs hit Instacart and Amazon as 'essential' personnel say they aren't being treated as such.

Amazon workers protesting in Staten Island, New York

Amazon workers protested Monday in Staten Island, New York. It's a moment of reckoning for gig company leaders who have long relied on cheap labor to attract customers with low prices.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The coronavirus strikes have arrived, and the ethics of keeping the tech economy churning have never been murkier.

Some workers at Instacart and Amazon logged off or walked off the job on Monday as employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods planned a global "sick out" for Tuesday. They want hazard pay to compensate for heavier workloads and risky front-line conditions, broader access to paid sick leave, and changes to other policies that make workers feel not only exposed but "dispensable," said San Diego Instacart shopper and strike organizer Susan Cuffaro.

It's a moment of reckoning for gig company leaders who have long relied on cheap labor to attract customers with low prices. Now, those front-line workers have become very visible "essential" personnel in locked-down cities.

"This is like a global ethics case study," said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "I don't think there's ever been an experience before that the globe can share like this."

Cuffaro, 56, has worked as a contract Instacart shopper for three years. She said her income from the app has decreased by two-thirds in that time thanks to the app's pricing models — not counting what she spent on precautionary supplies on eBay to fend off COVID-19. "I just purchased the only set of gloves that I could find on sale for $23," she said Monday. "Everyone is scared to death."

For fast-growing companies like Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates, the pandemic is a stark but unprecedented growth opportunity. Customers need them more than ever.

But workers like Cuffaro say increased demand has translated to more double and triple orders — meaning two or three customers — on each grocery run, for which workers collect the same fee ($7 or $8 in some places) as a single order, plus tips.

Instacart and fellow gig-work companies like DoorDash, Uber and Lyft have relied on carefully worded statements about policies for contract workers for the duration of the pandemic. On Sunday, Instacart published a blog post titled "Furthering Our Commitment to the Shopper Community," in which it promised workers hand sanitizer and new minimum tips. The company said last week it plans to add 300,000 contract shoppers in the coming months as workers in other industries are laid off and demand accelerates for delivery services.

The shock of the pandemic comes in the wake of unprecedented labor organizing in Silicon Valley, which saw the 2018 Google walkout morph into full-on union drives at Kickstarter and Glitch. Over the weekend, Everlane found itself fending off new allegations of union-busting after laying off activist customer service contractors. Also in the mix are large tech companies that were among the first to tell full-time employees to work from home after the COVID-19 outbreak, but which now must grapple with what to do with legions of hourly contractors and vendors as uncertainty drags on.

On Monday, Amazon fired the Staten Island fulfillment center worker who organized the strike because he violated safety regulations, including defying a quarantine "after being exposed to an employee with a confirmed case of COVID-19," Bloomberg reported.

Most other gig-economy companies have attempted to weather the pandemic by telling corporate personnel to work remotely and by offering contractors measured concessions, such as paid sick leave if they can produce proof of a positive COVID-19 test or quarantine order from a doctor. For Instacart's labor organizers, the steps don't reflect realities on the ground.

"Tests are at this point impossible for the average person to obtain," Cuffaro said. "It's effectively saying, 'Yes, you can have these benefits, so long as you can do a double backflip with a complete turn off the top of a building.'"

By midday Monday, Instacart said that the strike had "absolutely no impact" on its operations, which have slowed to days-long waits in some cities where residents have been told to shelter in place. In fact, the company said it had 40% more workers than a week earlier, according to a report by Axios. Organizers like Cuffaro said it was impossible for anyone except the companies' executives to know the current headcount, though "a significant number" of shoppers posted about their participation on social media.

For anthropologist Mary Gray, who studies artificial intelligence at Microsoft and last year co-authored the book "Ghost Work" about the field's reliance on gig workers, the rising tension speaks to bigger questions about the fast-evolving field of "information service work." She worries about "anybody who's at that nexus of artificial intelligence and the wall it hits," where human intervention is still required, from delivery drivers dispatched by on-demand apps to moderators with the potentially traumatic job of filtering disturbing online content flagged by algorithms.

"This is the collision of realizing that good ethics start with looking at, 'What are the lived realities of the people who are producing what you use?'" Gray said.

At the level of corporate self-preservation, she said, there's an argument that ensuring workers' fundamental needs are met can increase productivity. "You care about work conditions," she said, "you actually take care of everything downstream from there."

As COVID-19 cases explode across the U.S., strikes have also seized heavy industry. On Monday, employees at a Massachusetts General Electric jet engine plant walked off and demanded that the company switch to producing ventilators for hospitals reporting shortages.

Gray used to think that it would take environmental shocks related to climate change to rouse workers and corporate leaders to change the status quo. To Skeet, it's not surprising that anxiety has boiled over during a health crisis after a decades-long shift toward "some employees being treated as less equal" when it comes to benefits like health insurance.

"The relationship between employers and employees has been shifting, and I would say eroding, since the 1980s," Skeet said, when large, stable employers like IBM started to voluntarily shed jobs by the thousands.

Today, companies and executives that proactively consider effects on workers may have an advantage whenever economic activity resumes after the crisis, she said, since strong policies — like early and clear remote work directives or guaranteed pay — could reassure both employees and shareholders about continuity. "When there are shared values and clear frameworks for making decisions inside companies, people can move faster and create more value," Skeet said.

Some white-collar tech workers are jumping into the fray to help encourage companies to consider demands from service workers. On Monday, worker advocacy group Tech Workers Coalition issued a pledge to support striking Amazon factory workers' demands and refrain from doing any technical work for the company until then.

"I started seeing reports about workers who were not as privileged as I am having to go out and expose themselves to the virus," said Shauna Gordon-McKeon, a freelance programmer based in Washington, D.C., and an organizer with the Tech Workers Coalition. "That just seems bad on all counts."

Amazon has ceded some ground on paid sick leave, and other companies have similarly shifted gears under pressure. Elon Musk shut down the assembly line at Tesla's Silicon Valley factory after backlash for defying a shelter-in-place order. Google and Facebook guaranteed pay to hourly workers after initially asking them to keep coming to work. Restaurant group Darden extended paid sick leave to hundreds of thousands of workers and saw its share prices rise after previous criticism from waiters desperate not to get sick.

In moments of crisis, Skeet said, leadership is often the variable that separates good and bad actors: "There's a unique kind of leader who gets to that kind of extra level of capacity," she said, "where they can look beyond, 'What's going on in my company?' But also, 'What's happening industry-wide, or nationwide or, in this case, worldwide?"

Still, Gray said, it will take a mix of voluntary action by companies and legislative change to secure lasting improvements for workers as a result of the health crisis. "We cannot leave this to corporate charity," she said.


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While gig workers have been extended additional unemployment benefits, Gray advocates for more systemic policy overhauls — moving from employer-dependent health care to "portable" benefits that move between jobs, for instance, or increased investment in ongoing education. Some left-leaning politicians are paying attention. On Monday, as #InstacartStrike was trending on Twitter, lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted messages of support for workers.

For skeptics of an expanded social safety net, Gray said, techno-utopian faith that agitating workers will soon just be automated out of existence is also misguided.

"The reality of what we're looking at today is not going to be readily solved by replacing people," Gray said. "We just haven't had enough public understanding of the real technical limits of artificial intelligence, and probably more importantly, the real value of those moments of human judgment."

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