Apps like Uber, Instacart and Postmates initially drew in gig workers with the promise of easy money (pick up a shift on your lunch break!), flexible hours, and unlimited earning potential. The reality, however, is that the apps’ workers face increasing challenges like low wages, scams, and penalties, all of which have been getting worse in recent weeks.
According to a report from Motherboard, Instacart has been temporarily suspending the accounts of Instacart workers who cancel deliveries, even in “no fault” special cases where no one was home or a minor ordered alcohol. Instacart says the suspensions happen when the company “suspects fraudulent or unusual activity related to an order,” but workers say being locked out of their accounts for 24 hours means Instacart is keeping them from work, often for no reason.
Shoppers have complained on Facebook and Reddit groups about the policy. “Even tho I didn’t cancel I couldn’t even get in the gate. Customer wouldn’t answer my calls or agents’ calls,” one wrote on Facebook. “No pay…no batches for 24 hours!” On Reddit, a shopper wrote that they accepted an order from a store in Texas, only to find it at closed early because of the storm. “[Instacart] said I would be compensated for going to the store and assured me that my account wouldn’t truly be suspended. Today, my account is currently shut down and I have no way of contacting them,” they wrote.
Vanessa Bain, an organizer with the Gig Workers Collective, told Motherboard that Instacart is taking away the control that gig work initially promised. “Let’s be real, with this, they’re restricting us so we don’t have any power to determine when we work,” she said. “It’s a situation in which shoppers have a lot less agency and flexibility than they used to.”
Meanwhile, the Markup reports that some Postmates shoppers are experiencing phishing scams that result in hundreds of dollars of lost pay and, because so much of the communication with Postmates is done over an app, it’s difficult to get in touch with anyone who can help. “In regular employment arrangements, there is a company culture and there are always people you can talk to. One word for that is social transparency,” Elizabeth Watkins, a senior research assistant at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, told the Markup. “In gig work, they don’t have this—it’s called digital isolation.”
Workers in California, where Prop 22 solidified that gig workers would not be considered employees of the apps they work for, have also reported pay cuts, since companies are now under no obligation to pay a minimum wage. One driver told the Guardian he makes about $5 an hour, and can come off an eight-hour day with only $100 before gas and other expenses. Prop 22 determines that workers meeting certain thresholds are eligible for benefits, but apps are allowed to pay for the time when a driver is actively shopping or delivering, and not time waiting for an order or driving to a destination.
“A lot of drivers were duped because they expected they were magically going to be able to qualify for benefits that the companies made it sound like they were going to pay for up front and that drivers were going to be getting reimbursement for the mileage,” said driver Ben Valdez. “They also made drivers believe that if Prop 22 didn’t pass then Uber and Lyft were going to leave the state of California because they couldn’t afford to pay drivers as employees.”
Delivery apps like Instacart, Postmates, Grubhub and UberEats have amassed even more power in the pandemic, thanks to a sagging economy and more people relying on delivery meals and groceries than ever before. So far, they’ve been able to wield that power to exploit gig workers and lobby for more legislation like Prop 22 around the country.