Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sunday Long Read: Shop Till You Drop

Grocery delivery services like Instacart aren't any better than Amazon or Uber when it comes to treating their employees like indentured servants, and utterly disposable ones at that.

Once people got too scared to leave the house, there was lots of money to be made as a shopper-for-hire. Rachel had been running groceries for Instacart since October, but the Las Vegas market had barely offered enough gigs to scrape by. After the company switched to the On Demand model in February, the good orders (or “batches,” as Instacart calls them) went to whoever clicked first — and even when Rachel was lucky, she often wasn’t fast enough. But one morning in March, she logged on to see order after order piled up, lucrative ones at $50, $70, $100, all ready for the taking.

“The demand was insane,” she says. “Things were great. You could make in one batch what a lot of people would be making in a day. But you could also be standing in line at Costco for an hour and a half just to get in.”

By then, Rachel was making most of her money off Instacart. She wanted to take precautions on the job but wasn’t sure how. At first, she was just wearing gloves, thinking that touching the groceries was the biggest risk. A few days in, the news from New York scared her into digging up a box of face masks. She started having an allergic reaction from the latex in the gloves, so after that, she was down to just the mask and hand sanitizer. Stores were getting smarter at the same time. Soon, there was a separate line for Instacart shoppers; later, there was a guy giving out hand wipes just inside the door.

After running down high-dollar batches for two weeks, she started to feel sick. It began as a bad cough, dry and deep in her lungs. At first, she thought it might just be the arid climate. Perhaps it would just get better? “I thought maybe it could be allergies or a seasonal change,” Rachel says. “It’s hard to tell out here with the weather.”

A few days later, she woke up with a weight on her chest that made it hard to breathe. Her doctor gave her a full chest X-ray and a bunch of medications to tide her over, promising a proper coronavirus test a few days later. They had set it up as a drive-through: she pulled into the lot behind the doctor’s office, rolled down her window, and reclined her seat to offer a good angle to the nurse, clad in scrubs and gloves, who proceeded to thread a six-inch cotton swab so deep through her nose that it scraped mucus from the back of her throat.

From the symptoms alone, the doctor believed Rachel had COVID-19, but it would be weeks before the results came back. The doctor told her to quarantine for 14 days — then, the standard recommendation for anyone with a low fever and a bad cough who wasn’t sick enough to be hospitalized. At that point in March, Nevada had fewer than 500 available ventilators, and hospitals were bracing for impact. The last thing anyone wanted was a sick worker making grocery deliveries.

In theory, Rachel could still get paid while she self-isolated. On March 10th, Instacart announced that it would be offering two weeks of extended pay to any shoppers “diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in mandatory isolation or quarantine, as directed by a local, state, or public health authority.”

Rachel had been careful with the paperwork, too, alerting Instacart in advance and arriving for the test with a form from the company for the doctor to fill out. She scanned and submitted it the next day, then settled into quarantine. The first week was the hardest. She rested, prayed, and tried to drink as much water as she could, but the medicines didn’t seem to be helping. She started to panic. There was no money coming in, and she didn’t know when it would get easier to breathe. The week passed, and still no word from Instacart.

“I was emailing them, I don’t know, 20 times a day, just saying, ‘Hey I’m entitled to a response,’” she tells The Verge. “Every time I got the same automated response: submit your claim, submit your claim.”

After 12 days, the test came back negative — either a fluke illness or a fluke test result — but Rachel was still in a hole for the two weeks she’d spent in quarantine. Instacart finally wrote her back, rejecting Rachel’s claim. She needed a quarantine order from a government agency, the company said, not just a note from her doctor. She tried other outlets — her doctor again, then the state department of health, then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then the state department of labor — but none of them could satisfy Instacart or hold the company to account. She never got the money. Because of the nature of gig work, she didn’t even qualify for Nevada’s unemployment benefits.

“Every path I went down, I hit a dead end,” she says. “My thing is, you don’t have to offer this to anyone. Why offer it if you’re not going to pay it?”

It’s a common story. On forums and in Facebook groups, Instacart’s sick pay has become a kind of sour joke. There are lots of posts asking how to apply, but no one seems to think they’ll actually get the money. The Verge spoke to eight different workers who were placed under quarantine — each one falling prey to a different technicality. A worker based in Buffalo was quarantined by doctors in March but didn’t qualify for an official test, leaving him with no verification to send to reps. In western Illinois, a man received a quarantine order from the state health department, but without a test, he couldn’t break through. Others simply fell through the cracks, too discouraged to fight the claim for the weeks it would likely take to break through.

Only three of the eight workers actually got their money: one full-time staff employee got paid through HR channels, while another gig worker received a partial sum after weeks of haggling.

In a third case, a 50-year-old shopper named Alejo tested positive and was admitted to the ICU, but he had his claim denied while he was hospitalized. A gig workers group seized on the case to publicly pressure Instacart with a blistering Medium post, and the pressure worked: Instacart paid up, although the company noted that the circumstances were exceptional. But Alejo hasn’t improved. He’s been in the hospital for more than a month now and is still on a ventilator, with his doctors increasingly concerned about organ failure. In the meantime, his stepson Alejandro has gone back to making Instacart runs. With Alejo laid up, it’s the only way to keep the family afloat.

People are dying out there on the front lines of the COVID-19 war, and nobody in corporate America or the Trump regime really seems to give a damn.  No wonder the country is rapidly burning these days.

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