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Instacart said that, starting March 29, a new customer tip default setting will go into effect for all Instacart customers in North America.

Instacart personal shoppers threaten to strike over COVID-19 issues

Online grocery giant says it’s developing own sanitizer, shoring up tips to address workers’ needs

Instacart personal shoppers may walk off the job Monday because of what they call inadequate measures by the company to protect and compensate workers during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

San Francisco-based Instacart on Sunday said it contracted with a third-party manufacturer to produce its own hand sanitizer that would be made directly available to shoppers. The company also unveiled a new customer tip default setting that it said would help shoppers earn “higher, more consistent” tips. However, later on Sunday, groups representing Instacart personal shoppers blasted the measures and said, “the strike is still on.”

Instacart’s announcement followed a joint blog post on Friday by the Gig Workers Collective and Instacart Shoppers, who claim Instacart isn’t doing enough to safeguard shoppers from fast-spreading COVID-19 or paying them extra for the risk they take in continuing to serve customers.

In the March 27 blog, the groups said they will walk off on Monday, March 30, “and will not return to work until our demands are met.” Their demands include personal protective equipment — “at minimum,” hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes/sprays and soap — plus an extra $5 per order in hazard pay, a default in-app tip amount of at least 10% of the order total, and an extension and expansion of pay for workers “impacted by COVID-19,” including shoppers with a doctor’s note for self-quarantine due to coronavirus or a pre-existing condition that’s a known risk factor for the virus. In addition, they called for the benefits deadline to be extended past April 8.

“Instacart has still not provided essential protections to shoppers on the front lines that could prevent them from becoming carriers, falling ill themselves or worse. Instacart’s promise to pay shoppers up to 14 days of pay if diagnosed or placed in mandatory quarantine not only falls short, but isn’t even being honored,” the Gig Workers Collective/Instacart Shoppers blog said in the blog posting on Friday.

“Instacart has refused to act proactively in the interests of its shoppers, customers and public health, so we are forced to take matters into our own hands,” they noted. “We will not continue to work under these conditions.”

The groups said in the blog that Instacart has more than 150,000 personal shoppers/delivery drivers. In early February, Instacart told Supermarket News it employs 12,000 in-store shoppers and 130,000 full-service shoppers to fulfill online grocery orders for same-day delivery or pickup. In-store shoppers are part-time employees who pick, pack and stage items at a dedicated retail store, while full-service shoppers operate as independent contractors who pick, pack and/or deliver an order from a store to the customer’s door. 

On Sunday, in an apparent response to the workers’ demands, Instacart said “broad supply chain shortages” led the company to work with a manufacturer to make its own hand sanitizer for personal shoppers. Plans call for the independently developed product — an ethyl alcohol-based liquid spray meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for hand sanitizer — to ship within the next week, according to Instacart. Shoppers will be able to request the sanitizer via a dedicated website, which they can access by logging in with their Instacart shopper email address.

Instacart also said that, starting March 29, a new customer tip default setting will go into effect for all Instacart customers in North America. With the move, all existing customers’ completed orders will default to the last tip amount, instead of the previous 5% tip default setting. Instacart, too, said it’s removing the “none” option in tip settings, which will require customers to manually change their tip to $0 if desired and “making it less likely that a customer will remove the shopper tip altogether.” And if a customer lowers the tip below 5%, the default will reset to 5% “to ensure shoppers continue to have a baseline tip amount,” the company added.


According to Instacart, order volume has surged by more than 150% over the last few weeks, and average customer basket size has grown 15%.

The customer tip default setting, which has been tested over the past few months, already has had a “significant, positive impact” on shopper earnings, noted Instacart. The company said 97% of all orders over the last month have included a tip, and shoppers on average saw a 30% earnings gain from customer tips.

“Over the last month, our team has had an unwavering commitment to prioritize the health and safety of the entire Instacart community. We’ve been evaluating the COVID-19 crisis minute-by-minute to provide real-time support for Instacart shoppers and customers throughout North America. We’re in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and other medical experts to ensure our policies, guidelines and resources are aligned with their recommendations as this situation evolves,” Instacart President Nilam Ganenthiran said in a statement.

“Within days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., we rolled out retroactive sick pay for in-store shoppers nationally and extended pay for all shoppers affected by COVID-19. We were the first company to launch ‘leave at my door delivery’ to give our customers  and shoppers a safer, more flexible delivery option. Last week, we announced a new COVID-19 bonus to increase pay as Instacart shoppers step up as household heroes for customers,” he explained. “And now, we’ve sourced, manufactured and are distributing our own hand sanitizer  in an effort to expedite distribution lead times and work around supply chain shortages.”

Ganenthiran added, “Our teams will continue to operate with a sense of urgency on creative solutions to help ensure Instacart shoppers have access to health and safety supplies as quickly as possible.”

The Gig Workers Collective and Instacart Shoppers, though, called Instacart’s latest COVID-19 measures “a sick joke” in a March 29 blog post and said a strike was still in the offing.

“We had been asking for hand sanitizer for many, many weeks. But, apparently, the company is capable of sourcing some with two days of work? Where was this before? Where were these efforts back when shoppers first began asking for it?” the groups said in the blog. “It’s abhorrent that it took this long for them to act, but on the bright side, it shows that a strike will work to change their behavior.”

Gig Workers Collective/Instacart Shoppers also reported that shoppers staying home due to underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of becoming infected are “still not being given sick pay” and that the new default customer tip setting will “in all likelihood, provide no meaningful benefit to shoppers” because customers would have tipped a lower amount “back when things were more normal.”

They also claimed Instacart didn’t address the issue of hazard pay. “The average pay per order is well under $10. Workers should not be risking their lives for pocket change,” the groups said in the blog.

According to Instacart, order volume has surged by more than 150% over the last few weeks, and average customer basket size has grown 15%. Based on the increase in customer demand, shopper earnings rose more than 40% month-over-month, the company calculated.

A week ago, Instacart announced plans to hire another 300,000 full-service shoppers over the next three months, noting that almost 50,000 new shoppers were added in the last week alone. This past Friday, Instacart also launched a 30-day extension, through May 8, of its previously announced benefit of 14 days of pay for hourly employees and full-service shoppers diagnosed with coronavirus or put in isolation or quarantine by a health professional due to the virus. The company, too, introduced a bonus payment — ranging from $25 to $200, depending on hours worked from March 15 to April 15 — for in-store shoppers, shift leads and site managers.

Many consumers have been turning to online grocery services during the coronavirus pandemic to avoid the risk of going into stores, although they’ve often had to contend with long delivery delays, out-of-stocks and product substitutions.

During the past month, 31% of U.S. households — about 39.5 million people — have used an online grocery service, according to a Brick Meets Click/ShopperKit survey last week. The figures were more than double those in the August 2019 poll, in which 13% of households (16.1 million) used online grocery services. The March 23-25 survey polled 1,601 U.S. adults who participated in the household’s grocery shopping.

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