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Jacob Sadowski lost not one but both of his jobs. With millions of people in the San Francisco Bay Area ordered to shelter in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, Sadowski's jobs as a server at the Cheesecake Factory and a sales associate at Verizon vaporized overnight.
Making matters worse, on that same day, March 15, his Toyota Corolla died as he drove to see his uncle, who had offered him a place to stay.
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But Sadowski, a 21-year-old from the East Bay suburb of Danville, had an idea where to look for a quick new source of income: delivering groceries for Instacart as residents panic buy en masse.
"It's surreal," Sadowski said during a delivery run on Monday, which he completed with a Buick that he rented for the new gig. "Everything was looking up for me, and then within a week, everything flip-flopped."
If all goes according to plan, some 300,000 other new Instacart recruits may soon follow Sadowski. On Monday, the company announced plans to more than double the number of contract shoppers and delivery drivers in its ranks to keep up with unprecedented demand as tens of millions of people from New York to San Francisco shelter in place.
"The last few weeks have been the busiest in Instacart's history," Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta said in a statement Monday. "Our teams are working around the clock."
The aggressive expansion effort at Instacart and fellow delivery giants like Amazon — which last week announced its own plan to hire 100,000 new warehouse and delivery workers — illustrates a broader reordering of the economy as city and state officials escalate precautions for COVID-19.
Brick-and-mortar retailers and restaurants are reeling after governments ordered consumers to stay home; many must either rapidly scale take-out offerings or lay off staff. But Instacart's carefully worded hiring announcement plays off the language in government orders that only "essential" businesses can continue operating as officials work to slow the spread of the virus.
"Instacart has become an essential service for millions of customers," a press release notes — and few people without other options for getting their own groceries would disagree.
The San Francisco company plans to add the hundreds of thousands new contractors over the next three months. Instacart, which operates in more than 5,500 North American cities, plans to concentrate new roles in California (54,000 additional contractors), New York (27,000), Texas (18,000) and Florida (15,000).
The expansion highlights questions about what the workforce might look like during and after a prolonged COVID-19 outbreak or a resulting long-term recession. Labor groups in California and beyond have questioned why gig economy companies are even allowed to operate during a national state of emergency, given that many contractors lack basic protections guaranteed to full-time employees.
"Gig workers have become frontline responders, often driving people to the hospital or delivering food to those who have been quarantined," labor advocacy group Gig Workers Rising said in a statement after six Bay Area counties announced a shelter-in-place order last week. "Yet these drivers have no sick days, no protective equipment, and no guidance about how this lockdown will affect them."
In an example of how contentious gig economy hiring has become amid battles over potential worker reforms like California's Assembly Bill 5, the Instacart press release skirts words like "hiring" or "employees." Instead, the company says it plans to "bring on an additional 300,000 full-service shoppers."
The vast majority of Instacart's current shoppers and delivery workers, about 175,000 people, are contractors, the company told Protocol on Monday. Another 12,000 are part-time employees.
Those part-timers are now eligible to accrue paid sick leave, the company said. However, in policies spurred by the pandemic that mirror those of companies like Uber, contractors are only eligible for compensation if they can document a COVID-19 diagnosis or an order to quarantine.
Still, Mehta sees his company as a bright spot in an uncertain landscape: "As more people look for immediate, flexible earnings opportunities during this time, we hope that Instacart can be an additional source of income," he said in a statement.
The company also has the backing of big business. Suzanne Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a press release that Instacart is "stepping in to support the economy by unlocking much-needed earnings opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer rely on their previous incomes."
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For Sadowski, who started Sunday, the foray into on-demand shopping has so far worked as a stop-gap after the sudden loss of his other jobs. He's started working 14-hour shifts — and pulled in $80 in tips after two grocery runs — which he hopes will continue long enough for him to buy his own car and reassess.
"I really like it. It's relaxing," he said. "If this is more profitable than what I was doing before, I might stick with it."
Lauren Hepler ( @lahepler) is a former reporter for Protocol covering how people live and work in Silicon Valley. She previously covered development, energy, and tech for The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and others. Lauren can be reached at email@example.com (just ask for Signal), and you can share information with her anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. She grew up in Ohio and lives in Oakland.
Demian Bulwa ( @demianbulwa) is Protocol's former head of investigations and projects. Previously, he was metro editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, overseeing coverage of local and regional news and editing enterprise and narrative projects. Before that, he was a reporter specializing in subjects including criminal justice, government corruption, mass surveillance, and big-wave surfing. He lives with his family in Petaluma.