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Grocery App Shoppers See Chance to Improve Work Conditions as Coronavirus Puts Them on Front Line

Workers from some of the biggest companies in the U.S. held walkouts or sick-outs on Friday in honor of May Day to pressure their employers to improve working conditions and pay amid the coronavirus pandemic. 
The mass strike targeted non-unionized retail giants such as Target, Whole Foods, and Amazon. But it also took aim at grocery delivery apps Shipt and Instacart, which organizers say is a milestone for the scattered gig economy workers who keep the services running.
"We're independent contractors, independent meaning we're alone," Sharon Goen, a Las Vegas-based shopper for Instacart and a founding member of the Gig Workers Collective, told Cheddar. "There's no brick and mortar building for us to rally around and organize from."
Like many of the organizers involved in Friday's action, Goen joined a Zoom call Thursday night with former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who has emerged as a figurehead for the strike after getting fired following a walkout in March. The call was just one of several digital meet-ups that the growing labor movement has used to plan actions during the outbreak.
Former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls at the Staten Island fulfillment center strike.Former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls at the Staten Island fulfillment center strike.
For the gig economy workers, however, this kind of decentralized planning is the norm. Goen said Instacart organizers are scattered in pockets across the country and rely on social media, and in particular Facebook groups, to share information and focus their organizing efforts. 
"We're all over the country," she said. "In fact, only two of us have met in person."
What has changed, she added, is that shoppers have become more motivated during the coronavirus outbreak, which forced them into the position of being frontline workers. 
As part of the strike, which for grocery app shoppers meant refusing to take orders for the day, organizers are demanding $5 hazard pay per order for the rest of the pandemic, a default tip of 10 percent rather than 5 percent, and more and better quality protective equipment. 
Instacart said it has offered two-weeks paid sick leave to full and part-time employees who have contracted COVID-19, but Goen and other organizers who have spoken out say the pay is difficult to obtain for many workers, even if they provide a doctor's note. 
Instacart did not agree to an interview but did provide the following statement: 
"Our team has been diligently working to offer new policies, guidelines, product features, resources, increased bonuses, and personal protective equipment to ensure the health and safety of shoppers during this critical time. We welcome all feedback from shoppers and we will continue to enhance their experience to ensure this important community is supported.”
The demands also highlight how pay structure has been a major point of contention between shoppers and Instacart stretching back at least four years when the company removed tipping from the app and then reinstated it after backlash from workers. 
"Instacart used to pay a flat rate, plus a per-item fee, plus your tip, plus bonuses," said Matthew Telles, a Chicago-based organizer and Instacart shopper who fondly recalls the early days of working for the company after a work-place injury pushed him into the gig economy. 
"I had a good time with Instacart for the first couple of months, which is the case with a lot of people," he said. "I was making good money. They were a younger company, smaller. They were doing it right back then. I was paid well for what I was doing."
Since then, fledgling organizers such as Telles, most of whom have no background in activism or any affiliation with unions, have pulled off a string of labor actions that have shown the promise of a labor movement consisting of contract workers who interact exclusively online. 
At Shipt, which is owned by Target, shoppers started organizing in February after the company changed its pay structure from a flat 7.5 percent of orders plus $5 to an algorithm-based payment system that organizers say is not transparent and has led to lower wages overall.  
"We don't understand it. We don't know what we're going to make," said Willy Solis, who delivers for Shipt in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas, and helped organize the strike Friday. 
On March 30, in the middle of the pandemic, Shipt implemented another pay cut in the form of lower fees for canceled orders. The change caught shoppers by surprise and the company later acknowledged that the policy amounted to a pay cut
Solis said that organizing at Shipt has been difficult because there is a culture of mutual suspicion among shoppers, who he said are encouraged to compete with one another for bonuses. He also said that Shipt uses an official Facebook group to engage employees and that these spaces are strictly monitored to maintain a positive message. 
"Once you're there, it's nothing but sunshine and rainbows," said Solis. "And I hate to admit it, because I'm an independent thinker and I'm actually conservative in a lot of my viewpoints, but I fell for it." 
Creating an alternative digital space for shoppers has been a struggle, he added, but the virus has helped push more shoppers to question the company line and join in organizing efforts. 
"We actively solicit and listen to shopper feedback and have taken numerous actions recently to support shoppers, including distributing protective equipment, providing financial assistance and paying bonuses," said Shipt in a statement on the strike. 
Solis, who said he is susceptible to pneumonia, has mostly avoided working throughout April, but he squeezed in a few orders before the strike to make a little money. 
"I'm trying to avoid it as much as I can, but honestly I'm behind on my car payments," he said. 
None of the shoppers involved in the strike anticipate that it will achieve all of their demands, or engage the majority of workers, but the hope is to make an impression and prove that gig workers, even during coronavirus, are continuing to grow their potential as organizers. 
"I don't think it's any more difficult than any organization that we've had, because this is how we roll," said Goen of organizing during the coronavirus. "This is the modus operandi of gig workers. It's a very solitary job."
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