MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of the newest jobs of this economy have been created by apps like Uber and Instacart. And it turns out that grocery delivery gigs are particularly attractive to women, who make up the majority of workers. Two apps confirmed this to NPR's Alina Selyukh. As NPR's look into the full employment economy, she spent a day with one suburban mom in Sacramento to find out why.
HILARY GORDON: You want apple?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just apple and...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We'll be going to bed.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: At 6:30 a.m., 4 out of 5 Gordon family members are up - if you only count the humans, because there are also dogs, chickens, goats, a bunny, a tortoise and a not-so-miniature miniature pig.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Squiggy, come here. Good boy.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SNORTING)
GORDON: This is what I have in my kitchen every morning.
SELYUKH: That's Hilary Gordon - she's 47 - doing the morning mom hustle.
GORDON: OK. Your breakfast sandwich, Jane's check for graduation. Drew, soccer ball - really?
SELYUKH: Her daughters are 14 and 17. Her son is 11.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, by the way. I forgot. I have homework.
SELYUKH: Having time like this with her family is a major reason why Gordon works as a shopper for Instacart. It's one of the delivery apps that hires tens of thousands of people like her to deliver groceries from supermarkets - think Safeway or Sam's Club. It's the epitome of gig work.
Like with Uber and Lyft, you can decide when to work. But with deliveries, you don't invite strangers into your car. This draws women, often in their 40s and 50s, who now make up more than half of the contractors working for major food delivery apps.
GORDON: This is what I tend to do. I'll sit and wait.
SELYUKH: This Subaru SUV is Gordon's office. Her Instacart shift today is 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. She'll spend much of it in her car in parking lots with her shopping sneakers on, watching her phone, waiting for grocery orders.
GORDON: There we go. We've got a batch - $8, there's no tip, for seven items to take 4 miles.
SELYUKH: Plus, the store is another 8 miles away.
GORDON: It's really hard to say yes to that because you feel like then they're thinking, oh, well, see, they'll work for that. And I don't want to work for that.
SELYUKH: But you can't skip too many orders. The app will think you stopped working. Eventually, we get a good one.
GORDON: It's 9.87 for them and a $6 tip, but it's half a mile.
SELYUKH: We're close. The order is eight items. Gordon can knock it out in about 20 minutes. Shopping for other people is a bit like a scavenger hunt, except the app is timing you. You rush through the whole store, do your best quality checks on produce, some Hail Marys on hard versus soft avocados...
GORDON: Is it for tomorrow? Is it for today?
SELYUKH: ...And a surprising amount of chatting up store workers.
GORDON: Hi, Belle (ph). Do you know if they're going to stock more in here?
SELYUKH: Gordon says this is the part she loves the most - meeting other people at the store or at their homes, especially if they have friendly pets. But, like a lot of gig workers, this is not a career she pictured for herself.
GORDON: So I've got two master's degrees - one in counseling and one in - master of family therapy.
SELYUKH: Gordon worked as a therapist in other states, but a move to California required more classes and exams right as her oldest was born. She became a social worker until she made the calculation familiar to many working women. Her job took up mornings and evenings. Her salary - not great.
GORDON: When you're going to pay the majority of it to let somebody else raise your kids, just didn't make any sense.
SELYUKH: A few years later, the recession hit. Her husband lost his job in finance. Their house value dropped. They're still paying down the debt that stacked up. But now, there's also...
GORDON: Swim team, soccer - Drew's cleats fell apart on the field - trips to look at colleges, AP exams, junior prom dresses...
GORDON: This is what I heard a lot as I interviewed more than a half-dozen women working for Instacart and other delivery apps like DoorDash, Shipt and Postmates. They said the apps help them cover some expenses of child and health care and opportunity for side income on top of another steadier job - their own or their partner's. Researchers say this supplemental work is the fastest-growing part of the gig economy.
STACIE BALLARD: If you're a mom or a caregiver, something that's really flexible.
MARTIN: That Stacie Ballard from Atlanta, who's worked for at least seven apps while building her own business. She keeps a stack of work T-shirts in her trunk - a green one to walk dogs for Wag, a gray one to deliver packages for Shipt.
BALLARD: Run to the bathroom, put the shirt on, go through the grocery thing (laughter). And then, if it was the next one, swap the shirt out. And yeah, it was kind of funny.
SELYUKH: Ballard works for apps part-time, like many women in the gig economy. Hustling like this full-time is exhausting. But also, hours are unreliable. Take Gordon, who after a year and a half is a super user at Instacart. She's one of the regulars who gets early access to all hours for the week. But to qualify for that access, she has to commit to this gig basically full-time. And on Sunday mornings, it's a moment of madness signing up for shifts.
GORDON: So it's really anxiety-producing.
SELYUKH: And you're just clicking.
GORDON: Click, click, click, click, click and then save. And then you hit the next day. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.
SELYUKH: After all that, as any gig worker knows, having more hours does not assure a huge paycheck bump. Remember all that math Gordon does before deciding if an order is worth taking? Gas expenses are a huge factor. Some days, Gordon might drive a total of 100 miles. Instacart pays some of the delivery mileage, but not for the drive to the store in the first place. Next to consider is what she'll be buying. Is it complicated or heavy - like this job shopping for two customers at one store for 32 bucks before tips?
GORDON: It looks decent if you don't scroll all the way through to see the last - 13 cases of water.
SELYUKH: This lesson she learned early on when she accidentally signed up for a batch with 81 cases of water from Costco. She had to return and give up the whole order. One final thing she always checks is whether she knows the delivery address.
GORDON: There's occasionally places that I will not go.
SELYUKH: Shoppers said they like to keep mental track of houses with creepy dudes, apartments with no elevators and bad tippers. Orders from businesses are notorious for not tipping. So if the batch does not check all these boxes with enough money, Gordon will probably skip it with a sassy message for Instacart.
GORDON: Pay too low - I will not work for free.
SELYUKH: Today, she delivered eight orders in 10 hours and made $133. Today was OK. Her best day was $255 in 12 hours. As another woman told me, working for an app is a great job as long as you don't really need the money.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Sacramento, Calif.
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