The Risks and Rewards of Instacart Shopping During a Crisis

March 20, 2020 Updated: March 20, 2020
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LOS ANGELES—On the morning of March 20, many Instacart workers woke up to a message from the company saying, “Thank you for being household heroes.”

For Instacart workers in California, the importance of delivering groceries to customers has taken on a new dimension in recent times.

On March 19, Governor Gavin Newsom directed all Californians to stay at home to contain the spread of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, which has infected over 1,000 residents across the state.

For Nick Gionfriddo, 34, who delivers groceries for Instacart in Santa Monica, the new measures give him more work, which is good. And he has the opportunity to help people at the same time.

“People will now definitely not be leaving their homes. They will start running out of some of those initial supplies, and they’ll need to continue ordering from people like me to get the groceries or their delivery food from local spots,” he told The Epoch Times.

“Instacart in L.A. has been on fire,” he said.

For the past four years, Gionfriddo has worked full-time as a driver for Uber and Lyft. But that changed a couple weeks ago when that work began to dry up.

“Uber was starting to get a little slow and I started to feel this tension,” he said. “Demand went down by about 90 percent for me. … So I came up with a new plan.”

He signed up for Instacart and was approved to begin work within two hours.

“So far, it’s been a blessing because the demand is through the roof,” he said.

On his first week with Instacart, Gionfriddo made $499 for roughly four and a half days worth of work. The following week, March 9-15, he began working 10-12 hours per day. His earnings fell just shy of $1,200—“a heavy amount [of which] was in tips.”

“A lot of my customers have just been really grateful we’re even doing the work,” he said. “I’m doing medicine deliveries, so I’m getting people their meds and it’s mostly older people.”

This week, Instacart released a statement reporting “a surge in customer demand on the platform across North America. This past weekend, we saw the highest customer demand in Instacart’s history in terms of groceries sold on our platform.”

Instacart app downloads increased four-fold on the Apple App Store last week.

The company also reported a 40 percent increase in North American customers using the app to remotely send groceries to family, friends, and seniors.

While working for Instacart during challenging times can be lucrative, illness and other compromising health concerns pose complications for some.

Sick Leave Uncertainties

Debbie R., 60, has been a part-time Instacart shopper in Yorba Linda and Corona since April, until she became sick last week.

Debbie describes herself as a very healthy person who doesn’t smoke, drink, or take any medications for underlying conditions. Still, she took the precautionary step of wearing gloves while shopping because “stores ran out of wipes to clean the carts.”

But on Monday, she woke up with a sore throat that persisted until Tuesday. At that point, her doctor advised her to get tested for the virus.

“I haven’t worked since last Friday,” she told The Epoch Times.

Plus, she noted, “Instacart won’t pay me [sick leave] if I don’t have test results.” She expected to get the results in a couple of days.

“If I’m positive, that means 14 days quarantine,” she said, possibly impacting her income and making it difficult for her to pay bills and buy groceries. Instacart “only offers 14 days [paid sick leave]. Plus now some extended pay, but who knows how long that will be. Not long, I don’t believe.”

According to the company’s health and safety guidelines, last updated on March 17, if an employee is “diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in individual mandatory isolation or quarantine as directed by a local, state, or public health authority” he or she is eligible for up to 14 days of pay.

However, extended pay is not available for those who choose to “self-quarantine or are self-diagnosed.” In addition, employees are not eligible for extended pay if stores within their zone are closed or if a shelter-in-place mandate is imposed.

Risks and Complications

For Orange resident Alex A., 35, the benefits normally associated with working for Instacart are currently outweighed by risks and complications.

“When I open the app, it’s tempting to take a $50 batch to Costco,” she told The Epoch Times. “But to be honest, it’s not worth it.”

“Right now, Costco will most likely be out of the items requested, which would result in refunds and when you refund items your tip goes down. So instead of making $50 I might be making $30. Which still seems like a high price but you have to consider the long wait lines to get in and the lines to get out. Is $30 worth 2 hours of work?”

Alex, who has worked as an Instacart shopper for the past two years, also mentioned the process of “false tipping”—a practice that is getting a lot of attention on several Facebook groups where Instacart shoppers share their experiences.

When an order, or “batch,” appears in the app, it lists the fee Instacart will pay the shopper along with an “estimated tip” amount from the customer.

However, customers have three days to adjust the tip after the delivery. Sometimes, they reduce the tip by as much as 80 percent.

“I’m not saying every customer is doing this,” she added. “There have been praises of generosity. Some customers leave high tips with notes to their Instacart heroes, but it’s the risk you take with each batch.”

The risk factor for Alex is amplified by the fact that she’s pregnant and heading into her third trimester.

“A month ago, I was desperate for batches,” she said. “Now I’m stuck home because I’m hesitant to risk catching the virus.”

According to Dr. Mansour Samadpour, President and CEO of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group, “Women who are pregnant are mildly immunosuppressed, so they fall in a susceptible group.”

Samadpour, who is also a member of Instacart’s Health & Safety Panel, reinforced the importance of oft-repeated safety precautions.

“Keep distancing from others … wash [your hands] with soap,” he said. “If you’re going outside, it’s nice to have a disinfectant with you. Wearing gloves is not a bad idea—you can just wear normal gloves. You just want to protect your hands.”

He mentioned that, under standard circumstances, “there is absolutely no need to [wear masks]” unless a person is in a hospital environment.

“If they are just outside, in their house, they’re going shopping—as long as they keep distance and protect their hands and [refrain] from touching [their] face, [they]’re going to be fine,” he said.

The spread of the CCP virus in the United States has prompted Instacart to implement new policies, like “Leave at My Door Delivery.” Over 25 percent of all orders the second week of March used this drop-off delivery option.

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.