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(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
GARCIA: Candy Roberts lives in Clayton, Del. And about a year ago, she started working for Instacart, the online grocery delivery company.
CANDY ROBERTS: I'm raising my autistic grandson, and I was struggling a little bit trying to find work that allowed me to be available when he needed me.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Candy heard about Instacart. She learned that she could be a shopper - take people's orders, go to the store, get their groceries, drop them off. Best of all, she'd be an independent contractor, so she would not have set hours.
ROBERTS: And it allowed me to work the hours that I wanted to work, so I did. And it works - it's been working great.
GARCIA: Candy is able to earn about a hundred dollars a day delivering groceries, and she gets the time she needs to be with her grandson.
ROBERTS: He's pretty awesome. He's the funniest kid ever. He has a lot of little crazy collections that he does. We collect M&M wrappers, and we collect cereal boxes. And he's been doing that since he was about 4 (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: Candy liked being an Instacart shopper. She liked her customers. And then, says Candy, about three weeks ago, everything changed. And going to the supermarket started to feel a lot different.
ROBERTS: The atmosphere is - I've never felt anything like it. It's scary, and it's emotional. I said, you know, I think I kind of have PTSD from shopping.
VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. There's never been a time when gig workers were more visible or more vital to people than they are right now. Instacart, Seamless, Uber, Lyft - a lot of these services have become lifelines to people in cities that have been locked down because of coronavirus.
VANEK SMITH: But gig workers are also in an especially vulnerable position right now. Many feel forced to work even though they don't feel safe. Today on the show, we talked to Candy about her experience and look at what this moment might mean for workers like her in the future.
Candy Roberts says being an Instacart shopper has gone from a joyful job to kind of a blood sport.
ROBERTS: People steal stuff out of your cart. You know, you might've grabbed the last milk. Well, don't look away from your cart because they're going - somebody's going to take it out of your cart.
GARCIA: There's also, like, a kind of constant Darwinian struggle going on for the rarest items on everybody's list - hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and, of course, toilet paper.
ROBERTS: There is no toilet paper to be found. I just don't - I don't know what people are doing with it. Where is it going? I can't figure out the toilet paper obsession right now.
GARCIA: The job, she says, used to be a joy, but now it's just overwhelming.
ROBERTS: You know, Instacart even reached out to us and said, you know, this is the busiest time in their history.
VANEK SMITH: Are you making extra money with this extra business?
ROBERTS: Absolutely not. We're working harder and making less.
VANEK SMITH: Candy says Instacart has typically paid a flat fee of $7 per order, and then she makes the rest in tips. But right now, she says, Instacart is paying a flat fee of around 3- or $4 per order. We reached out to Instacart many times to ask about this. They never responded. But we did confirm with other Instacart shoppers in other parts of the country that they're also getting a lower flat fee from Instacart.
ROBERTS: I feel like they're taking advantage of us. So they're making loads of money. They're not passing that on to any of the people who are making it for them.
GARCIA: Meanwhile, Candy says, the tips have gotten a little spotty. A lot of people are just worried about money right now. And on top of everything, duking it out at the supermarkets has started to feel really dangerous. It just means being around people all the time.
VANEK SMITH: Candy says Instacart hasn't supplied her with a mask or gloves or hand sanitizer, so she's had to improvise. She uses Listerine to disinfect her hands and this bleach solution she made up to wipe down boxes. But it doesn't feel like enough. Candy says she's terrified. After all, she is the sole provider for her grandson.
ROBERTS: I'm always worried that, you know, what happens if I get sick? We don't really have a big support system - or what happens if I get sick and then he gets sick? And that's really scary.
GARCIA: So Candy has to do this awful calculus. In order to limit her exposure, she is doing fewer orders than she used to. But that also means that she is earning less money, which comes with risks of its own for her and for her grandson.
ROBERTS: Today is the first day ever since I've been working at Instacart that I don't have my rent payment because of the way things have been going. And that's scary, thinking that I might not have a home for him.
VANEK SMITH: Here's the thing. Workers like Candy might not actually have to work right now. The $2.2 trillion act that Congress just passed allows gig workers to file for unemployment benefits, which they usually can't because they're considered independent contractors.
GARCIA: That act included $600 per week for a lot of workers, on top of what they would normally get for unemployment. And that money would be a lifesaver for Candy. But actually getting that money is another issue.
Veena Dubal is a professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings.
VEENA DUBAL: The last two weeks of figuring this out alongside gig workers has been really confusing, really frustrating and really scary.
VANEK SMITH: Like, you're a lawyer, and you can't figure it out.
DUBAL: That's right. Yeah. I mean, it's so confusing. I've been talking to unemployment insurance experts in the nonprofit world across the country, and everyone is really confused and scared.
VANEK SMITH: Here's the problem. Most companies, like Walmart, Microsoft - they keep records of their workers - how much they make, how many hours they work, et cetera. So if they lay people off, the government has a record of how much that employee made. And that worker gets paid a portion of their old wage in unemployment benefits from the state.
GARCIA: But companies like Instacart and Lyft do not necessarily keep track of how many hours people work or even who their workers are. So states which are already overwhelmed with unemployment requests will have to sort out how much to pay the gig workers who apply for unemployment.
DUBAL: And that means that workers are going to get this money weeks after other workers. And it is going to be really hard for these already, you know, stretched-thin state departments to create a whole new system.
VANEK SMITH: In the face of all that uncertainty, Veena says a lot of gig workers have just opted to keep working. They cannot afford to risk not getting money for weeks or not getting money at all.
DUBAL: Everyone that I'm talking to that is in the gig economy who is still working desperately wants to stop working. No one rationally wants to put their life on the line. Everyone who is doing so right now is doing so out of economic desperation.
GARCIA: Still, Veena says, this is a powerful moment for gig workers. She says they have been on the margins of the workforce for years. They were typically dispersed and isolated, so they couldn't really organize. And now they are suddenly finding a community, a voice and a lot of public support and visibility.
VANEK SMITH: Instacart workers went on strike last week, demanding higher pay and protective gear. Instacart says it will provide kits with masks and thermometers and hand sanitizer, as well as bonus payments for shoppers.
DUBAL: And so people are thinking about the health of these workers in a way that they've never had to think about before because the health of the gig workers is intertwined with the health of people who are using and benefiting from their labor. And all of a sudden, we also are completely reliant on them. And we have the sort of time and space to think about what they are experiencing on an everyday level and why it is that they're continuing to work when so many people are not.
GARCIA: Veena thinks gig workers will start to organize more and more and that they'll be successful at getting what they ask for because at the moment, the companies that employ them really, really need them.
VANEK SMITH: For right now, though, Candy Roberts is just doing what she can. She's taking on as many hours with Instacart as she can stomach. She's trying not to worry too much about money, and she's trying to enjoy the extra time with her grandson.
ROBERTS: He's right now practicing for his - what they call classroom karaoke so when he goes back to school, he can sing "Joy To The World" to the class.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY TO THE WORLD")
THREE DOG NIGHT: (Singing) Singing joy to the world, all the boys...
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and Darius Rafieyan. THE INDICATOR's edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.
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