Instacart Workers & Revolt Over Tips reveals a major problem for the Gig Economy


In light of the widespread public outcry, Instacart abolished a controversial policy last week that used tips to subsidize the minimum payments promised by employees. The policy ensured that customers felt deceived and employees felt deceived, and the subsequent scams – noted by members of Congress – drew attention to other unseen exploits of employees of a gig economy, including time spent on unpaid problem solving and technical support for the source-financed platforms based on their labor.

Though certainly a cost saving, this strategy could be a responsibility, because supervisors and the public have taken a critical look at Silicon Valley: "It's outrageous, it's a $ 7 billion company, they go to IPO, and they basically have wage "said the American Rep. Ro Khanna while discussing Instacart in a recent appearance on Fox News & Tucker Carlson Tonight. "It's a scam."

Khanna, a Silicon Valley Democrat who makes his appearance at the Carlson show, is all the more striking: he has spoken out about regulating the technology industry, which in some respects is a twofold problem. But he would not have known of the Instacart issue at all if it was not for the workers of the gig economy who took screenshots, compared notes, and coordinated with Working Washington, a Seattle-based working group, to publish evidence of what Instacart was doing.

In contrast to freelance hackers who sometimes make real money by reporting security vulnerabilities to technical companies, employees who spend hours on the phone with customer service to report glitches on platforms are not compensated for their time. The customer support teams that should facilitate internal communication and quality assurance are often call center employees after scripts, with heavy workloads and little power to solve the daily problems that gig staff have to deal with.

And those problems do not only affect employees: when Instacart customers realized how the company used their tips, they threatened to stop using the service. As the events of the past week have shown, there is a high legal investigation into the problems with gig economies. This means that relying on unpaid labor to monitor gig platforms can be a problem for these companies, especially because they are seeking IPOs.

"We do troubleshooting for these platforms and we do not get any compensation at all", says Vanessa Bain, a San Francisco delivery employee at Instacart who has been involved in the efforts to organize the contract staff for three years. . Bain estimates that she spends 30 hours a week addressing Instacart problems while she is not really working.

"The employees themselves operate as HR departments."

In general, workers in low-cost economies get low wages, on which they have to pay taxes, in addition to the costs of such things as car maintenance, accidents or parking tickets. Bain says she spends more than 40 hours per week with the Instacart app enabled to wait for lucrative jobs, but only earns about $ 500 for 25 hours of actual driving and delivery work. Instacart deliverers are not compensated for the time they spend waiting with the app.

"The responsibility lies with the companies to ensure that they meet their own payment standards," she said. "It should not be up to us, as independent contractors who are not compensated for anything other than rides or deliveries, to spend tons and tons of time on these situations that happen almost daily."

Gig workers on other platforms also say that they spend hours of their 24-hour time struggling to resolve glitches and discrepancies. At the end of last week, for example, Uber drivers in San Francisco caught a glitch in the company's app: it charged passengers with high prices for journeys in the city as a result of a strong increase (demand-driven), but the same increase did not appear in the driver app. This meant that Uber collected extra payment from passengers that was not passed on to drivers.

After viewing the screenshots of driver & # 39; s shared by BuzzFeed News, Uber said that this was an unintentional failure. The company apologized for the mistake and said it would pay back affected drivers. But to get Uber to fix the mistake, the drivers had to spend their time testing the mistake themselves, discussing their findings on driver forums and sharing their results with journalists. This system continues to affect the confidence of drivers, which in itself can be a long-term problem if companies cross the workforce.

"It is always a challenge for employees to show that they are being deceived, but these companies are such black boxes that the barriers are so much higher – and of course the companies are not interested in discovering mistakes that cost them money", Rebecca Smith from the National Employment Law Project told BuzzFeed News. "The employees themselves and the organizing groups that work with them also operate as HR departments."

A San Francisco-based driver named Michael, who was struck by last week's glitch, told BuzzFeed News that he repeatedly contacted Uber's customer service about the problem, but never got a fix. He said that when it comes to missing pay, it is important that drivers argue for themselves, via e-mail, telephone or go to one of Uber's "Greenlight Hubs", where drivers personally with customer service representatives being able to talk.

"You spend a lot of time, and many of these things are not a lot of money, so sometimes it's not worth the effort to fight that amount, but you will not get that money, and Uber may just keep it," he said. "It's like," Do I really want to go to the hub for $ 8? "If you do not, remember how many other people lose $ 8, and Uber gets that in the bag."

Michael said he was partially reimbursed by Uber for last week's glitch, but still agrees with customer service regarding further adjustments. "One day," he said, "I hope they will be transparent with what's really going on."

Amazon drivers who suspected that the company (such as Instacart) used their tips to cover the promised minimum wage did even more effort to obtain evidence. Algorithms often determine the reward of gig workers and are often presented in an opaque way, making it difficult for them to understand exactly what they earn and how. According to an LA Times story published last week, one Amazon Flex driver had actually delivered a package to his home and was sure he was the one who delivered it so he could leave an unusually big tip; when that tip was not in his payment in that week, he could confirm that Amazon used tips to subsidize minimum wage guarantees. (Amazon has confirmed this, but it will not change its policy.)

Sage Wilson, communications director of Working Washington, the working group that contributed to improving the Instacart employee action, saw firsthand how much time and effort the employees spent monitoring the app and getting the company's attention.

& # 39; They rage from one mistake, the scandal or the lawsuit to the next. & # 39;

"If you're a customer, the fault is … it's an inconvenience, but if you're dependent on an income to pay the rent, it's more than an inconvenience if the thing does not work." It's interesting to see how they do not seem to have any incentives at the moment to get it right, "Wilson said. But with the help of groups like Working Washington, Wilson said that public and legislative tensions can be a start for companies to be more cautious about their treatment of employees.

"The way they do it now, left to their fate, does not work for anyone," Wilson continued. & # 39; They rage from one mistake, the scandal or the lawsuit to the next. & # 39;

Gig companies are plagued by scandals. Amazon delivery staff who, under pressure and without sufficient time to find a bathroom, are caught in front of the camera while doing their business outside of viral. Two years ago, thousands of customers decided to ignore #DeleteUber about the company's decision to increase pay for drivers picking up riders at the airport during a taxi strike, which was seen as a form of crusting. The public crisis was the start of a very bad year for Uber, which resulted six months later in the resignation of the CEO. In a world where there is fundamentally little difference between the service offered by Uber versus Lyft, Instacart versus Shipt, or DoorDash versus Postmates, public sentiment is important.

Also lawsuits, chase these companies. Employees have prosecuted almost every company with a gig economy (Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub and Deliveroo, to name but a few), but those suits need years to solve and many have been resolved before they reached a solution.

The intervention of progressive legislators such as Rep. Khanna – who would like to stand out from the crowd in the general upheaval of the primary season – could have a more direct effect. While in recent years lawmakers have talked about drafting legislation that would protect independent contractors – the concept of inventing a third working class classification was coded about four years ago, while more recently the idea of ​​a portable system of benefits has become more popular – the The current political atmosphere has made some elected officials, especially progressives, more vocal.

"The digital revolution creates an extraordinary amount of wealth, they can afford to make sure there's a middle class, I think it's almost ridiculous for these people not to see the gap, and how they contribute to it, & # 39, Khanna told Tucker Carlson, "If you want to make sure that we have a united country, do a few simple things: First of all, make sure everyone participates in the benefits of technology, not all wealth but a small number of people. concerns."

Khanna – who, together with Senator Bernie Sanders, represented an account that gave Amazon's full-time employees a minimum wage of $ 15 – is not the only one that participates. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's policy advisor Dan Riffle agreed about Instacart on Twitter, with the argument that all tipped employees should receive a minimum wage, regardless of where they work.

"We know that ultimately we do not have to rely on these companies to regulate themselves," said Bain, the Instacart employee who is part of the organizational effort. "They're not going to do it, and they've proved it over and over again, so, realistically, the only way we'll ever see a long-term change in the long term is external pressure like the law, that's our final goal. & # 39;