On a Friday morning after one of Chicago’s big snows, Michelle Harris stood by a freezer at an Aldi store in west suburban Broadview and scanned three frozen pizzas with her phone’s camera. She added them to her grocery cart and speed-walked toward the checkout line.
A shopper and driver for the grocery delivery service Instacart, Harris had already been to three different suburbs near her home in west suburban Berwyn that morning. The pizzas and other groceries were for her next two customers, in Bellwood and Westchester.
“If you waste time, you’re wasting money,” Harris said. She said she approaches each grocery trip with an attack plan. “The faster you get into the store and get done, it means the faster you can move onto the next order.”
Harris ran a vintage flea market in California for eight years, until the pandemic shut it down last year. Last March, she moved to Illinois to be with her boyfriend, just as pandemic life set in.
“I was like, ‘I have to do something — I’m going through my savings like crazy,’ ” Harris said. “So I was like, ‘I’ll just do Instacart,’ thinking it would be a month or two. We’re coming up [on] ten months.”
Harris is among hundreds of thousands of Chicago area workers — and millions of Americans — who lost work due to the pandemic. Many of them have become part of the app-based gig economy, working with grocery and restaurant delivery services like Instacart, Grubhub and Amazon Fresh.
Although experts believe demand for food delivery services will shift back to ride sharing once the pandemic ends and people go back outside, the larger jobs picture is troubling: The companies behind such app-based work benefitted from widespread consumer adoption during the long stay-at-home quarantine period. But the local workers who power these services are realizing that gig work, despite promises of freedom and flexibility, is not ideal as permanent employment.
Jhonathann Douglas, in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, was working as a guide at the WNDR Museum, an interactive art and tech museum, in the West Loop before the COVID-19 outbreak. When the pandemic shut down the city’s museums, he and most of the workers were furloughed. Douglas looked for work for months — “everything under the sun, whatever I found that seemed remotely close to me being able to do. I applied to Target, Walmart, Chick-fil-A, banks, stuff like that.”
Instacart was the only company that got back to him, Douglas said. Unlike Harris, he is an in-store shopper only, which means he shops for customers at Plum Market in Old Town for an hourly wage, and other Instacart workers deliver the items.
Douglas said while Instacart has been a good stopgap, he hopes he will be rehired at the WNDR Museum. “That job was by far one of my favorite jobs,” Douglas said.
Demand increased during the pandemic
A spokesperson for Instacart told WBEZ the company does not share numbers by market, but that the grocery delivery service had expanded its nationwide labor force from 200,000 shoppers at the beginning of last March to more than 500,000 today. In that expansion, the spokesperson added, the company targeted 15,000 new shoppers in Illinois specifically.
Dmitri Koustas, an economist at the University of Chicago, says company numbers aside, the count of workers for companies like Instacart is difficult to estimate. Gig work, he said, “is a component of self-employment, technically, and many of our datasets only collect information on self-employment more broadly.”
Prior to the pandemic, his best guess is that about 1% to 2% of U.S. workers had part-time income over the course of the year from app-based gig work like Uber and Instacart.
While nailing down an accurate number of app-based gig workers is difficult, Koustas said studying the demand for those services provides a helpful glimpse into whether these kinds of jobs will persist or grow as a sizable category of work.
“While the use of ride-hailing transportation services has plummeted since the pandemic began, demand has increased for grocery and restaurant delivery services,” he said, pointing to a study he led last summer, one of the few snapshots of this burgeoning industry. The report also found, not surprisingly, that wealthier households used these services with greater frequency in the pandemic: Americans with household incomes of $100,000 and up were more than twice as likely to have increased their use of services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh than those with household incomes under $50,000.
Koustas also said while there is no data available yet to show whether ride-share workers have switched to grocery delivery services, he does not believe they are the same labor force. “The types of skills and the times of day that you would work for doing delivery differ from ride-share [work] — particularly older workers who are probably unlikely unable to do the type of shopping that Instacart requires,” he said.
An unforgiving algorithm
For Ashley Ward, a 36-year-old mother of four in Evergreen Park, Ill., that means being able to move swiftly through the aisles and find items quickly, lift heavy objects like boxes of bottled water, and providing friendly customer service to the prickliest customers.
Ward had worked for Instacart “on the side” before her recent divorce and move from Iowa back to Illinois. The pandemic slowed down the job search in her previous line of work — processing medical records at hospitals — so she started shopping and driving for Instacart full time.
Ward says she likes setting her own schedule so she can help her older children with e-learning and spend time with her newborn. However, the gig has many drawbacks, like difficult customers, the extra mileage on her car and the lack of benefits.
“There’s no 401(k); there’s no real job security,” she said. “If Instacart closes tomorrow and says, ‘we’re not going to be doing this anymore,’ then I’m looking stupid. It’s good to do it on the side or for extra money, but long term? No.”
Ward also said Instacart’s unforgiving algorithm affects workers’ ability to earn a decent living.
“It does get difficult when the customer starts to lie on you and says you didn’t deliver something and your rating goes down,” she said. “The lower your rating, the money you can make from the batches goes down.”
Low ratings, tip baiting and bot snatching
Seven dollars is the base amount that Instacart shopper-drivers like Ward can earn with each “batch”; any additional money they earn varies based on the customer’s tip, the driving distance, the number of heavy items and other factors. Ward said a low rating could mean the difference between earning $8 or $40 per batch.
Michelle Harris, in Berwyn, said, “It’s like a cycle — making sure you’re on top of your game in terms of customer service to be able to get that good rating to be able to get the good orders.”
She also said some Instacart workers use third-party bots to snatch the highest-paying batches.
“[Bots take] all the good orders, and that’s a hard one because there are people out there that are doing it, like, legit, and we’re kind of stuck picking up whatever the leftovers are,” Harris said.
She added that customers can also be a problem when they are not responsive to texts about unavailable items or what to get as their replacement. Then, there’s the practice of tip-baiting — in which a customer promises a large tip to get a faster delivery but changes the amount after the order is fulfilled — which is also a problem for some workers.
An Instacart spokesperson said in an email to WBEZ that the company is taking measures to address these issues. The spokesperson said Instacart is continually implementing new measures to verify shoppers that use the app and to ban third-party bots for accepting batches, and that tip-baiting is a rare occurrence on the platform.
The company added in a statement: “By allowing customers to tip after delivery based on their overall service, we see shopper tips increase or stay the same on 99.5% of orders. Additionally, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in North America, shoppers’ earnings from tips have nearly doubled. Tips are always separate from any Instacart earnings and all tips go directly to the shopper.”
Looking ahead, Koustas, the gig economy expert, says he expects the number of Instacart workers zooming through local grocery aisles will decline as the pandemic is brought under control. “I expect a lot of that demand is going to go away, and the demand for ride-share service is going to increase again,” he said.
Harris, who said the toll on her body and car are becoming unbearable, hopes her flea market business will pick up again soon. Meanwhile, despite a promise to herself many years ago that she will never work for another corporation, she recently started looking for a nine-to-five job with benefits.
“I’m just tired,” she said. “I need to think about what’s best for me.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.