Some gig workers who have long fought for better pay, working conditions and protections suddenly find themselves considered essential in the coronavirus age — particularly those who deliver groceries and other goods. With such stature comes leverage, at least in the estimation of labor organizers who are speaking up louder than ever. An early test may come Monday with a planned nationwide strike of workers who lug loaves of bread and pasta sauce (though rarely toilet paper) for Instacart, where online orders are already often backed up for several days.
The potential worker action comes at a pivotal time for the 8-year-old company, which said this week that it is seeing the busiest time in its history and plans to bring on 300,000 shoppers over the next few months. It brings to the fore inherent tensions in the gig economy, in which companies rely on an independent, temporary and low-wage workforce. What happens when workers on the front lines of a crisis walk out? Is it bad timing or perfect timing? Will customers respond with support or backlash?
Gig-worker actions have helped notch some high-profile victories, such as California's still-disputed Assembly Bill 5 that seeks to force companies to convert many independent contractors to employees with benefits. But it's unclear how much leverage workers such as those at Instacart have, especially at a time when so many people have lost their jobs, and are looking for work, as a result of the skid in business unleashed by the pandemic.
"There's so little barrier to entry," said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. "That is one of the aspects of the gig economy, by design."
Strike organizers said in a Friday blog post that Instacart is "profiting astronomically off of us literally risking our lives, all while refusing to provide us with effective protection, meaningful pay and meaningful benefits." They listed demands including $5 per order in hazard pay, free hand sanitizer, and an extension and expansion of sick pay that's being offered only to those diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined because of it.
The San Francisco company responded with its own blog post, saying it is increasing bonuses for certain workers and incentives for others. Instacart said as well that it is working with grocery stores on improving conditions for its professional shoppers, such as by providing dedicated entrances.
Vanessa Bain, one of the strike organizers, said the list of concessions announced by the company was "severely lacking." Even as newly jobless workers sign onto gig work for the first time, she expressed optimism that many Instacart shoppers will take part in the action on Monday. "A lot of shoppers have already stopped shopping because of the risks," she said.
But as many Americans avoid leaving their homes, the timing of the demonstration carries risks, said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School and a former retail industry executive. "It seems to me that organizing a strike is kind of antithetical," Cohen said. "Instacart is not rolling in cash that I'm aware of. As sympathetic as many may be, it seems entirely counterproductive at this moment."
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Amid the drama, the federal stimulus package signed by President Trump on Friday may put pressure on Instacart and other gig companies that benefit from the inclusion of independent workers among those eligible for monetary relief. By not classifying workers as employees, and not contributing to unemployment insurance funds, Jacobs said, "the companies shed responsibility, put the risk on the workers, and put the cost on both the workers and the public."
In addition, workers who gain access to unemployment insurance could choose to stay home — at least for now. "That makes it harder for companies to take advantage of rising unemployment to get people to work for very little," Jacobs said.