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, having moved in with her parents after being injured at a previous job. 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 from her basement. 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 handing out masks and 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. She’d moved to Las Vegas a few months earlier, and 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.”

A selfie photo of Rachel in her car wearing a protective face mask.
A selfie of Rachel in her car.

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.

Reached for comment by The Verge, Instacart refused to disclose how many shoppers have tested positive for COVID-19 or how many received sick pay. Instead, the company noted that it has invested $20 million toward health and safety efforts generally. “Our team has been diligently working to offer new policies, guidelines, product features, resources, increased bonuses, and personal protective equipment to ensure the health and safety of shoppers during this critical time,” the company said when reached by The Verge.

But while full-time employees stationed in stores have received hazard pay bonuses, the money going to gig workers has been limited to batch promotions — essentially a few dollars added to each job, direct from Instacart. The promotions are piecemeal and unpredictable, like gig work itself. The company has also sent out protective kits with masks and gloves, but they’ve been hard to come by. Most workers end up buying their own.

The problem is bigger than just masks and sick pay. The pandemic has turned grocery delivery into a vital service, and Instacart’s business has never been better. Orders are up 500 percent since the crisis started, and shoppers are seeing 60 percent more money for every job they run. Instacart hit profitability for the first time last month, and it plans to bring in 300,000 new full-service shoppers. It’s on track to process more than $35 billion in groceries this year, which would put it on par with the fifth-largest grocery chain in the country.

That success has come on the backs of workers like Rachel. As most of the country has been sheltering in place, workers have been spending hours in lines, hunting through chaotic and newly dangerous supermarkets so that clients don’t have to. Instacart still views those workers as independent contractors, and tensions between executives and gig shoppers have reached a breaking point. The company has already seen two public walkouts, each accompanied by the threat of a public boycott in solidarity. Most painfully, the longest-running shoppers say they’re being pushed out by the influx of new employees in a system designed to churn through bodies rather than protect frontline workers.

“People are disposable to them,” Rachel says. “They don’t care.”

One of Rachel’s batches.

By the time Rachel finally got help, it didn’t come from the billion-dollar tech platform, but from a former bartender named Sharon Goen.

Sharon came up through the Vegas hospitality business (“the hostility business,” she likes to call it) but turned to gig work because “it got to a time where there was no call for aging women behind the bar.” She started doing runs for Amazon and learned about other services fast. Now, she dabbles in a little of everything.

“I do Instacart, I do Shipt, I do Amazon, and I do Grubhub,” she says. “I’m the ultimate gig worker.”

When Rachel was exhausted and scared, Sharon was the one who stepped in to help her. An informal leader in the Vegas chapter of Gig Workers Collective, Sharon is used to dealing with Instacart bureaucracy. She called the local labor board and reached out to the CDC and World Health Organization, running down every lead to show that Rachel’s doctor was qualified to make the quarantine call. She even tracked down a screenshot from the app that specifically said it didn’t need to be a positive result. Sharon even offered to help with Rachel’s bills while she was quarantined, although Rachel didn’t take her up on it.

This sort of low-level support is common in private Instacart Facebook groups, where experienced workers like Sharon have become a kind of shadow human resources department. When the app goes down and shoppers are left with no way to finish their runs, they’ll flood into the local Facebook group to see if it’s happening to everyone. When a problem customer refuses to pay for a duplicate order, a more experienced shopper can tell you how to handle it. For many shoppers, it’s help they simply can’t get from Instacart itself.

That position has also let Sharon watch the platform dry up in real time. After the initial flood of orders, she’s now witnessing a drought unlike any in recent memory. There are 2,600 full-time shoppers in Las Vegas now, a number that’s more than quadrupled since the beginning of the year. With no one hailing rides, Uber and Lyft drivers have started shopping as a way to make ends meet, but it just makes the problem worse. There simply aren’t enough orders to go around

“It’s so hard to get a batch,” Sharon says. “It’s terrible right now.”

That same oversaturation is happening on Shypt and Amazon, too, although Grubhub seems to have dodged it. But for Sharon, there’s something uniquely malevolent about Instacart. She puts it down to Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta.

“I think he hates the shoppers. I really feel that in my gut,” she tells me. “It’s hard to not take it personally what they do to us.”

If more experienced shoppers have soured on Instacart, it’s partly because the company is so hard to pin down. Even relatively new Instacart shoppers have seen huge changes on the platform, which seems to rewrite the rules every month or two. Toward the end of 2019, the company reworked its system for tipping after it was revealed it was quietly taking a share of tips — something many workers describe as simple wage theft. Most controversial was the On Demand model, a shift made in February that tilted the system heavily in favor of newer shoppers and provoked a quiet revolt from veterans of the platform. (Instacart has defended the model, saying it provides shoppers with greater flexibility in hours and specific jobs.)

Supermarket shortages were common throughout March, particularly for high-demand items like toilet paper and flour.

The one constant has been the batch — a single order made by an Instacart customer and fulfilled by a shopper. Individual shoppers are vetted and coordinated by Instacart, but they’re not considered employees, and, in a sense, the company is just a system for shuffling through batches. At this point, the company doesn’t assign specific shoppers to batches or group orders for efficiency. It’s just an interface, sitting between a pool of orders on one side and a pool of itinerant labor on the other.

For shoppers, batches are the lifeblood of the job. Instacart sets prices for each batch, but they’re often so low that the runs don’t make economic sense. Small batches are often set at the $7 minimum or just above, which is practically nothing when you factor in waiting times and the price of gas. There are good batches, too, but they get snatched up quickly, while the bad ones linger on until they’re the only thing shoppers see. The result is a daily battle over who will get the most profitable batches and be able to make a living on the platform — a battle Instacart seems to be actively encouraging.

Before this year, shoppers would sign up for hours in advance and be fed batches one at a time, which let Instacart do some algorithmic management of which shoppers got the more complicated or profitable jobs. But it also created the problem of who would get the duds. Last July, the company faced a minor scandal for allegedly pressuring shoppers into taking unprofitable batches, making them sit through four minutes of thudding alarm tones before the app would cycle to the next batch. (Most workers simply muted the phone.)

It might seem strange — why clog the system with offers no one wants to take? — but maintaining a steady flow of unprofitably cheap runs is one of the main advantages Instacart has over store-brand delivery services. The bad batches drive out experienced workers while expensive promotions tempt new ones in. The more politically minded shoppers see that churn as a deliberate strategy.

“They’re cycling through people pretty fast, and they’re desperate,” says Sarah Clarke, an Instacart shopper who also works with Gig Workers Collective. “When it’s all over, they’ll have all these people on the platform and they aren’t going to need us anymore. So that’s when they lower the price.”

In February, while the coronavirus was still seemingly confined to Wuhan, Instacart tore that system down and started fresh. Instead of feeding batches to workers during declared shifts, Instacart decided to simply dump all the batches in a given region in a communal pool and let workers sort it out for themselves. It built on a change from the previous February, which moved from flat-rate pricing to a more complex algorithm that balances distance, weight, number of items, and other factors. The details of the algorithm aren’t public, and shoppers say they have little insight into what makes one run more profitable than another.

The result has been bewildering for dedicated shoppers like Sharon, who were used to knowing how much money they would have in their pocket at the end of a shift. “Back in 2017, I knew exactly what I was going to make,” Sharon says. “I knew if I was going to Costco, it was going to be a $5 bump. I knew if it was going to be over a $200 order, I was going to get a $5 bump. If it was over 8 miles, there would be a mileage bump, 40 cents an item. All that’s gone.”

Shoppers can wait for an hour or longer outside a supermarket, often in a separate line for gig workers.

In other cases, the app seems purposefully designed to make workers vulnerable. Buyers promise a tip when they list a batch, but they can change it for days after the run is completed. It’s led to a practice shoppers call “tip-baiting,” where buyers list a big tip to make sure their batch gets taken, then pull it back after the fact. Instacart defends the system, saying it gives buyers discretion over how much they’re tipping. According to the company’s statistics, tips are only lowered after the run in 0.5 percent of cases — but the result is still less money in the pockets of gig workers, and it’s a structural vulnerability for people who are already extremely vulnerable.

Instacart offers some resources to help shoppers navigate the platform — including a help hotline, ominously named “shopper’s happiness” — but even before the pandemic, those resources were coming up short. The constant platform changes have led to a growing sense among Instacart veterans that all they could count on was each other. On February 1st, a group of in-store Instacart shoppers in the Chicago area voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers. It was a small shop, with steadier gigs than the intermittent gigs that Rachel and Sharon take on, but it added to the mounting pressure against Instacart. Later that month, a handful of workers started a new organization called Gig Workers Collective to build solidarity across services. Designed for cross-platform gig workers like Sharon, it gave workers a way to share tactics and information across the country, splintered across dozens of interconnected group chats and Facebook pages.

When the pandemic started heating up, those shopper groups became a kind of early warning network. For Cerena Conrad, a shopper based in LA, the first sign came when Costco put a limit on how much bottled water shoppers could buy. It was still February, with only a handful of coronavirus cases reported in the US. The store put up a paper sign announcing the limit, so Cerena took a picture to share with other local Instacart workers. “More photos came and we all figured it out,” she says. “Something’s happening.”

As the rush got worse, orders became impossible to fill. Shoppers would accept a batch of 30 items, wait an hour in line, and find only 12 of them were actually in stock. They could offer substitutions, but buyers didn’t want to hear that there wasn’t any toilet paper on the shelves. Most people ordering from Instacart had no idea how chaotic supermarkets had become. They didn’t have to — that’s why they were ordering online.

“It really pissed off customers,” Cerena tells me. “They didn’t understand that it was completely out of our control.”

Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that customers would get frustrated. The app made it seem as though shoppers had access to a special warehouse where all of the goods were kept, like Amazon. Why would the app list a product for sale if you couldn’t actually buy it? Instacart would recoup the cost of a particular grocery order if buyers refused to pay, but there were lots of other ways angry customers could make life hard for shoppers, like clawing back tips or leaving a zero-star rating. And most of the time, customers didn’t get mad at stores; they got mad at shoppers. Instacart had arbitraged customer anger onto the most vulnerable people in the system.

For shoppers like Cerena, the anxiety was tangible. “Every time I took a batch, I would get this sick feeling,” Cerena says. “They’re not going to have everything the customer wants, I’m going to piss them off, it’s going to affect my pay and my rating. That was constant, daily.”

Daniel Poyer was visiting family in Arizona when the first surge of demand hit. Between Instacart and DoorDash, he and his fiancée were able to keep bills paid while they were on the road, and there were far more orders to fill than in their hometown in rural Illinois. He had been on the platforms for almost a year and knew the tricks.

As they started the drive from Arizona, he began to feel strange. “I really didn’t feel that bad, just kind of off,” he says. By the time the couple got home, he was in rough shape and went straight into quarantine.

It’s always hard to pin down the point of infection, but Daniel believes he caught the virus while making runs. “Between Doordash and Instacart, I had to have come into contact with something from somebody. But I have no clue who,” he says. “Even if you do use a mask and gloves, it doesn’t really mean you’re protected.”

Instacart’s sick pay announcement came just a few days after Daniel got home, but he fell into the same trap. He got letters from his doctor and the state health department telling him to quarantine, but Instacart wouldn’t sign off on the check, catching him in another technicality. He was poring through the emails just as the worst of the symptoms were hitting, and reckoning with the grim reality of surviving the next few months with no income. In the worst week of his illness, he remembers not being able to sit up without feeling nauseous. For much of the time, he just laid on the ground and cried.

“I don’t have the words to explain how it feels to be made an invalid because you’re so sick,” Daniel says. “And then on top of that to be told that, even though you were told you’d be taken care of, to be brushed off like you don’t matter.”

Sharon unpacks a batch from her car.

New York City claps for essential workers now, a coordinated daily round of applause at 7PM to show collective appreciation for their sacrifice. You can see signs thanking them in strangers’ windows and on their lawns. Like teachers and soldiers, they have become a revered profession in America — honored for their sacrifices but not compensated for them.

That split is particularly harsh for shoppers who never considered their job dangerous before a few months ago. More than 100 grocery workers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, according to a recent Washington Post report. Thousands more have been exposed. Full-time employees at least have the protection of a larger company, but gig workers are facing those dangers alone. For all the fanfare, shopping-for-hire is still a near-minimum wage job. You might hope the “essential worker” tag would give workers more leverage, but in the case of Instacart, it’s hard to see how. The best workers can hope for is a little more money and a little less risk.

Sharon is more careful these days, knowing what she’s up against. She carries hand sanitizer, of course, and she makes a ritual of applying it after she leaves the produce aisle, and again after checkout, this time sanitizing her credit card along with her hands. She leaves wipes on top of the grocery bags when she drops them off — buyers appreciate that. When she gets home, she takes her shoes off just outside the door and sprays them with Lysol. Then she goes inside, washes her hands, and retraces her steps back, wiping down everything she’s touched with a sanitizer cloth — the handle on her front door, the handle on the car door, the dashboard buttons, and finally the steering wheel.

“It’s scary out there,” she tells me. “I’m old. I’m 57 years old. My risk is high.”

Money is harder to come by, too. Instacart bragged about hiring new workers, but for Sharon, the result is less work to go around. You used to have four minutes to claim a good batch, then 30 seconds. Now, they’re snatched up as soon as you see them. There are rumors that a bot is snapping up the good batches and selling them to workers second-hand (Instacart has pledged to investigate), but it’s more likely that there are just too many people on the same hustle. The platform is arranged so that they’re always fighting each other for the chance to work. If you can’t find enough batches, it’s because another worker got the good ones first, not because the system priced them too cheap or pulled in more shoppers than the system could support.

Still, Sharon sticks around. Something about the work appeals to her. “I do this because I like it,” she tells me. “I actually like my customers and I like shopping. And I’ve got a daughter in college so I help her out. But there are people who do this for a living who don’t have a choice.”

Desperation is contagious, but Sharon does her best to resist it. These days, she says she won’t put on her pants for less than $20. It’s a point of pride, a matter of knowing her value. She tells people in her Facebook group to draw the same line. If no one takes an underpriced batch, it will come back with a few more dollars on it — all they have to do is wait. But it’s hard to build solidarity on an open platform. Someone is always willing to take the run.

“I saw one today,” she says, “seven dollar batch, thirty items, forty-seven units. It was only going a mile but that’s seven dollars with no tip. And somebody took it. Because people are desperate. People don’t know their worth. People just see dollar signs and they gotta feed their kids.”