Grocery startup Instacart says it’s fixed its payment problems. This gig worker says it hasn’t.

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An interview with an Instacart shopper who says the company’s “frustrating” practices have left her with 30 percent less income.

For busy parents, working professionals, and homebound populations like the elderly, Instacart can feel like a godsend. Customers place orders through the company and can have items from stores like Costco, Whole Foods, Kroger, Petco, and CVS delivered straight to their doorsteps.

Instacart has made schedules much more manageable, turning into a multibillion-dollar venture along the way. Founded only seven years ago, Instacart now makes about $2 billion a year in revenue, according to a recent Forbes estimate; it’s credited with changing the grocery industry forever, and CEO Apoorva Mehta is celebrated as a top tech executive after founding 20 failed startups.

Instacart’s success is dependent on some 70,000 independent contractors the company calls “shoppers” who purchase and deliver groceries. Like their peers in the gig economy, they aren’t guaranteed minimum wage or overtime. One recent study even found that most of them aren’t making minimum wage before tips, though Instacart disputes these kinds of calculations.

Back in February, the company was the subject of widespread outrage after it was reportedly found guilty of tip theft; the company was applying tips to worker baseline pay, as opposed to letting them keep tips as extra pocket cash. The company publicly apologized and announced that Instacart would be paying its shoppers more “fairly,” with a new pay structure that included increasing its minimum baseline payment on orders from $3 to between $7 and $10 (though the company did not clarify what would put a shopper on one end of the range versus the other).

But some claim the company’s pay structure has only gotten worse. Recently, I spent some time talking to Kris, a 53-year-old former paralegal who works as an Instacart shopper in Seattle. Kris explained the routine of an Instacart shopper, how she believes the startup is making it harder to earn money, and why she believes it rarely has the best interest of its workforce in mind. Our interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

In response to this conversation, a spokesperson from Instacart said that the company “values our community of over 70,000 dedicated shoppers and are committed to improving the Instacart shopper experience. While there’s more work to do, we’ve begun turning feedback into actionable changes for shoppers. The voice of the Instacart shopper community plays an integral role in shaping our product and we look forward to continuing to have an open dialogue with shoppers to deliver the best possible experience.”

When did you start working as an Instacart shopper?

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which prevented me from working a regular job. I needed flexibility, and saw an ad for Instacart. I know the company has been around for a while, but it feels like it’s only been really big in Seattle over the last year. I started in January of 2018.

My goal is to be able to make $100 a day, in order to support myself. I used to be able to pull that off by working about four hours, four days a week, but Instacart changed its pay structure a few months ago and these changes have affected us poorly. Now it takes about six days to make that.

What’s it like to grocery shop for other people?

I shop for them the way I would shop for myself. I think of it as a personal luxury shopping service, so I am checking the dates on the bread and milk, looking for the best produce, and making sure I find all of the special requests. I think there’s a lot of work that goes into this job that people don’t think about. All produce, for example, has to be bagged and weighed, so you are constantly working with a scale to make sure everything is accurate. We also spend a lot of time waiting on lines at the deli, or at the fish counter.

Are there any rules of grocery shopping that are unique to Instacart?

One big one is to not give the customer the receipt. You can actually get deactivated if you do. They are marking up products so that Instacart can make a profit as a third-party vendor, and customers get Instacart receipts emailed to them. The company doesn’t want us giving customers the grocery receipt because then everyone would see the real costs. We also have to take off all stickers that reveal any sales or prices, like a buy-one-get-one.

[Instacart told Vox the price discrepancies are easy to find in its app.]

How does your current payment structure with Instacart work? Are you getting paid per item?

No, we used to get paid like that. We’d make a 40-cent commission on each item. But in November, Instacart changed the system so we now get paid via a batch payment.

It’s become really confusing. We don’t know how our payments are calculated, other than the fact that Instacart gives us a $7 to $10 baseline, and then some payment that’s supposed to cover the costs of mileage from a store to a customer. Instacart says our payments are based on some sort of algorithm, but they aren’t transparent with us and none of us know how the payments work.

Can you walk me through a breakdown of an order?

Sure. The other day, I picked up an order that paid me $25.02. Instacart covered $20.99 and then the customer tipped me $4.03. The order included cases of water and soda. I know the baseline pay was $7 to $10, but I have no idea how they calculated the rest of the pay.

Instacart’s payment system, in general, is pretty frustrating because sometimes the payments can be really high, and sometimes it can be really low. It’s become pretty unreliable, and a lot of us feel like Instacart is playing games with our income so that the company can keep the profits.

[Instacart said its payment system was redesigned “to improve, enhance and create clarity around shopper compensation. The new minimums better protect shoppers from smaller, outlying batches and the changes increased Instacart’s overall contribution to shopper earnings.”]

How do you feel like the company is playing games with your income?

A good example is how Instacart moved from commission-based payments to batch payments with multiple orders in each batch. Recently, for example, I went to Kroeger’s for an order, and I got a batch payment with somewhere between $7 to $10 as a baseline. There were two different customer orders on the batch, though. So I had to run around for customer A’s order, and then do customer B’s shopping list. Really, my baseline pay should be $14 to $20 because it’s two orders, but Instacart has lumped them together when you are going to one store. I’ve done triple batches too. Instacart just never has our best interest in mind.

[Instacart told Vox that while the $7 to $10 baseline pay applies to multi-order batches, “shoppers have an opportunity to get additional pay through boosts earned for each order in the batch, as well as customer tips from each individual order in the batch.”]

Do they offer any incentives for you to make extra money?

They do, but those have also been harder to come by. I’m in a lot of [social media] groups for Instacart shoppers, and we all agree that since the chaos happened in February, things have actually gotten worse. Personally, my income has fallen 30 percent.

Instacart used to give you $3 extra if you got a five-star bonus from a customer, but the place to leave reviews has recently become harder to find. I’ve confirmed this with my customers. Unlike the Uber app, which has an automatic pop-up window for the customer to review the driver, shoppers have to go through multiple steps now to leave a star-rating. I believe that this is on purpose. Anything that costs Instacart money, they make sure the app works in their favor.

We also noticed that the tip was magically moved to 5 percent as a default setting which, quite honestly, does not cut it for this job. Not that it matters: Our tips are still disappearing. I have seen with my own eyes, and I believe Instacart is keeping them.

[Instacart said it offers “several additional opportunities to earn money” like “peak boosts” that give shoppers bonuses for working during busy times, as well as “heavy order payments.”]

 Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post/Getty Images
Instacart has come under fire for its payment policies.

I’ve asked Instacart about keeping tips, and the company denies this is happening.

Instacart is not being transparent with us. As shoppers, we have no idea if we are getting the full tips or not. We don’t get notifications if the tip has been increased after the delivery. We just have to believe Instacart, and this is a company that has caught underpaying tips before and had to pay out [a settlement in a class action lawsuit].

Us Instacart shoppers have seen our tips go down significantly, and we just assume the company is taking it. I absolutely believe they are still pocketing our tips, and I’m not the only one. I’m in groups on Reddit, and Facebook, and a few local ones in Seattle, and this has happened to many of us. I’ve spoken with Instacart shoppers who have watched their customer’s phones when they’ve sent a $15 tip. It will be confirmed on the customer’s phone, but the Instacart shoppers will still only get a portion of it.

What was the reaction when the company said they were going to start treating shoppers better?

We all rolled our eyes. It looked like one giant publicity show to us because Instacart has actually gotten rid of ways that we can earn more.

There used to be a club bump, where you could get $5 for shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club, and that’s gone. There used to be a bump for spending more than $200, but now that’s gone. We also used to have a long distance bump for driving more than 14 miles, but that’s gone too.

Honestly, that whole episode felt like a punishment to us Instacart shoppers because we had asked for a little bit of transparency, and that makes sense for Instacart, since the company builds punishment into the system.

How are workers punished?

If you decline an Instacart order, they’ll have you sit for 20-30 minutes until they’ll find you a new job. We joke that it’s a “time out” for turning down a job. The algorithm penalizes shoppers who turn down orders.

Instacart also has this demerit system called reliability incidents. You have to give the company six hours’ notice if you are going to back out on the number of hours you sign up for, and if you don’t, you get a reliability incident. After you get four reliability incidents, you are only able to select certain hours. On Sunday, Instacart hours unlock for the week, so I can make my schedule ahead of time. With enough reliability incidents, though, they only unlock one day ahead, so it’s essentially a punishment. This doesn’t really seem fair, given that we are independent contractors.

[Instacart told Vox that “reliability incidents are put in place to ensure we can offer a consistently beneficial experience to both our customers and our shoppers.”]

What would a better Instacart payment system look like for you?

Most of us want Instacart to be paying us on a commission system again, but where we are paid per unit — not item, unit. A unit, for Instacart, is how many of an item a customer wants. If they order four 2-liter bottles of Coke, that’s one item, four units, but the commission was only paid on the item, which is the Coke. If a customer ordered 15 apples, we wanted 40 cents per apple because there’s labor into picking all that, but they paid us 40 cents when someone ordered apples, not paid per apple.

I also think they should be creating more ways for us to make money, not taking away our bonuses. There should be more incentives for us to work and make more, just like the way they punish us when we don’t.

Lastly, we want tips to be totally separate from Instacart payments. We don’t like that we’re sent jobs where the company gets their hands on our tips.

What parts do you enjoy about the job?

I really love getting to know the staff at grocery stores. In Seattle, a lot of stores are hiring refugees and people with disabilities, and it’s a great opportunity to get to know them because when you’re a shopper, you see them every day and develop connections.

I also love seeing the populations who need this type of service. I love delivering to parents that have small babies, and I deliver to a lot of sick people, and people with disabilities who live in group homes. I also love my elderly customers, because for a lot of them you are the only social interaction they are getting, so I try to make it meaningful. There’s one elderly woman who I’ve shopped for a few times who lives in an assisted living facility, and I delivered her groceries last year right before Thanksgiving. I picked up a slice of pumpkin pie for her because I know she lives alone and you can’t have Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie! Interactions like that make the job feel really fulfilling.

What do you dislike?

I hate that we don’t get compensated for our wait time. Uber, for example, pays drivers who wait on riders, but I can be leaning on a buzzer for 20 minutes before someone will let me in. Seattle has a lot of buildings where you can’t get up to floors without key access, and so I can sometimes spend almost two hours a day waiting on people to come get their order.

I also don’t like that the company doesn’t take into account difficult parts of the job, like if there are a lot of stairs. I’m dragging huge orders from Costco to houses on hills with a lot of stairs and it’s a hazard that I’m just expected to deal with. Instacart also doesn’t take into account weather issues, which is a big deal in Seattle. Even when it snows here, they are expecting us to deliver to customers as usual. I’ve been to houses where nobody has cleaned the driveway or sidewalks, and have had to carry watermelons through the snow. To Instacart, that just isn’t a big deal.

Who are the worst tippers?

Rich tech people. This city is basically consumed with people who work for Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, and they tend to congregate in certain neighborhoods that I deliver in. A lot of them work from home, and so I see them. They are always on conference calls, and telling me to just leave their stuff at the door. The human interaction is limited to basically nothing, and so they don’t feel like they have to tip me much. They will order 60 bottles of expensive kombucha and organic green onions with comments like how I have to make sure I’m buying them ones that are two inches thick, but then they tip me $2.

I don’t think people understand the terms of this job, and it bothers us that Instacart’s automatic options for a tip is 5 percent, or no tip at all, considering that [as independent contractors] we supply our own vehicles and bear all the expenses. A tip could be the difference in a gig worker making rent, paying for school or medical or something really important in their life.

What do you want people to know about your job at Instacart?

People think we are just packing up bags, which can be done by a machine. It can’t be. We are looking for parking, moving around the store, weighing and bagging stuff, waiting on line, paying, driving to customers, and unloading. Our grocery shopping is being tailored very specifically to you and your family, and it requires not only a lot of personal handling, but is saving you the time and difficulty of driving, parking, loading, and unloading. I think the human factor of this job is totally discounted.