Even during a pandemic, people still need food. On Instacart, orders have surged to an all-time high in recent weeks as its workforce of 350,000 “shop
Even during a pandemic, people still need food. On Instacart, orders have surged to an all-time high in recent weeks as its workforce of 350,000 “shoppers” ferry groceries between stores and American households. Each trip puts those workers at an increased risk of coming in contact with the new coronavirus; some grocery store employees have described their workplace as a “war zone.”
In March, Instacart workers staged a nationwide strike, demanding sick leave, hazard pay, and basic disinfection supplies, which have become a costly out-of-pocket expense for gig workers who have repeatedly complained about low pay. Instacart ignored those demands, except for one: On April 2, it agreed to fashion its shoppers with complimentary “health and safety kits,” each containing a reusable cloth face mask, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a forehead thermometer. Workers are limited to one kit each.
But two weeks later, Instacart workers say the kits still haven’t come. WIRED spoke to more than a dozen workers, most of whom asked not to use their full names out of fear of having their accounts deactivated for speaking to the press. They describe a dizzying process just to request kits, with little communication from Instacart about how to place an order or when, if at all, the company would send the supplies.
The kits had to be ordered through carrotswag.com, Instacart’s online store. (The company logo is a carrot.) Workers say they struggled with the ordering process: At first, the kits were available for “pre-order,” but later said they were “out of stock,” with little indication of when they would be available for pre-order again. Some workers, desperate for protective gear, found themselves returning to carrotswag.com every day to try again to place an order.
Marsi Rackstraw, an Instacart shopper from Southern California, repeated this process unsuccessfully for over a week until her pre-order finally appeared to go through on Thursday. She’s still waiting for a separate order, for a six-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, which Instacart had already agreed to provide its workforce for free on March 29.
“I really want to believe they are looking out for us but I can’t help but feel like the safety kits—if they do exist—are a PR thing or for optics,” Rackstraw says.
A spokesperson for Instacart says that the kits do exist, and that the company began shipping thousands of them out this week. The spokesperson also says that Instacart was prepared to send supplies to all 350,000 workers.
But the company wasn’t prepared to process orders from the entire workforce at once. Instacart confirmed to WIRED that it had capped the number of orders that can be placed each day at an unspecified number of thousands. Once that day’s “inventory” is gone, the kits get listed as out of stock until the company opens up more. There’s no waiting list workers can get on—they have to keep checking carrotswag.com to see if pre-orders are open again. The spokesperson says Instacart needed to slow the pace of orders coming in so that each one could be validated as coming from a real Instacart shopper, and so that duplicate orders could be deleted. The spokesperson said the company has an entire team dedicated to this process, but did not specify how many people are working on this issue.
None of this was clear to the Instacart workers who spoke to WIRED. Instead they described their confusion and frustration over how to request the kits when they were almost always “out of stock.” Absent official communication, workers say they relied on word of mouth and social media to know when they could try again to place an order. “The company never sent out any kind of alert that they were available,” says one Instacart worker in Los Angeles. “I only knew to grab one because someone posted in the [Instacart Shopper subreddit] that the kits were up.” He says he placed the order last Wednesday morning, “at 10:49 a.m. Los Angeles time,” and the kits were again “out of stock by 11:01.” As of this Thursday, he still had not received any of the items.