Instacart Workers Feel Squeezed By Constantly Changing App The grocery-delivery app faces a new wave of discontent. Working for an algorithm means tweaks can upend a livelihood — and being a faster, nicer, more experienced worker doesn't guarantee better pay.
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At The Mercy Of An App: Workers Feel The Instacart Squeeze

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At The Mercy Of An App: Workers Feel The Instacart Squeeze

At The Mercy Of An App: Workers Feel The Instacart Squeeze

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Instacart, the grocery delivery app, has a lot of unhappy workers. Their concerns about pay are an eerie parallel to complaints from Uber drivers and others making living in the app-driven economy. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: At first, Instacart was fun. Michaellita Fortier says it felt like her dream of being on a speed-shopping TV show. And she could make 16- or $20 per delivery in West Michigan.

MICHAELLITA FORTIER: My mindset was, I'm helping a family, or, I'm helping a customer 'cause they can't go out.

SELYUKH: But then she kept getting offered 7- or $9 per order, meaning go to the store, shop for someone's groceries and drive maybe 10 or 15 miles.

FORTIER: Like, I'm looking at a order right now. It was $8.19 with zero tip. Once I kept seeing those come through, I thought, now, listen; this is less than minimum wage you want me to drive.

SELYUKH: Fortier quit last month, but millions of Americans like her still count on apps - Instacart, DoorDash, Uber, Lyft - not just as a service, but a job. These workers find themselves at the mercy of an algorithm, no assurance of a minimum wage, rules and pay that constantly change, the smallest tweak of the app capable of upending their livelihood.

Here's Liz Temkin, who's delivered groceries for Instacart in Los Angeles for over four years.

LIZ TEMKIN: It was extremely clear before how much you would be paid per item, per order. And then they came up with a completely different what we call block-box algorithm.

SELYUKH: Instacart has recently faced a strike over pay. The app relies on more than 130,000 contractors, most of them women. NPR connected with more than 40 of them, and their grievances are extensive. The strike was over changes to tipping, a hefty chunk of workers' income. Instacart used to set a default tip of 10% per order. Now it's half that, and it's on top of two other fees that go straight to Instacart.

These days, Instacart has new minimum pay - 7- to $10 per gig. Sometimes a gig means two or three orders and multiple deliveries - several payments to Instacart, one to the worker - though Instacart says its pay does account for the total, size, distance and other factors. If all this sounds overwhelming, a lot of workers feel that way.

MERCEDES MALTESE: We used to get $10 to go to the store and 40 cents an item. Now, no matter how many items and how many units we get, they pay us $7. Maybe there's a tip; maybe there's not.

SELYUKH: Mercedes Maltese says she took up Instacart in a Detroit suburb after losing a full-time and a part-time job in succession. She says her options are other minimum wage jobs. And with Instacart, she can at least try to work as many hours as possible, though much of her shift is often just sitting in her car, unpaid, waiting for a decent order.

MALTESE: And I work 15 hours a day, seven days a week. I just have to work and live in my car like a homeless person in some kind of hopes of scraping up some kind of money in order to pay my bills.

SELYUKH: Right after the recent strike, Instacart made another change. It stopped paying a quality bonus, $3 for each five-star review from a customer. The strikers claim retaliation. Instacart says not at all. The $3 bonus was a test, and it did not meaningfully improve the quality of work.

These tests and sudden changes are the reality of modern gig work. In August, a study that surveyed almost a thousand food delivery workers found Instacart stood out among the apps for just how much it pushed people to commit long hours and accept lower-paying gigs. The researchers called it algorithmic despotism.

Here's lead author Kathleen Griesbach of Columbia University.

KATHLEEN GRIESBACH: Instacart, we found in particular, really did control the labor process or control workers' experiences and limited their autonomy over their time and over the work they could do in a significant way.

SELYUKH: The study received some union funding and surveyed workers at apps like Instacart, DoorDash and GrubHub. Instacart dismissed the research. It argued the study used an outdated version of the app, which has since added a more flexible option for workers. Instead of having to sign up for two-hour shifts, now workers can also grab assignments whenever as orders come in in real time.

Most of the 40-plus workers I contacted said they worked both the old way and the new way. And either way, being a faster, nicer, more experienced worker did not guarantee better pay. Their bottom line - they are the face of the company but feel disposable.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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