You wake up with a scratchy throat and a tight chest, but otherwise you feel OK.
It’s most likely not COVID-19, but you know you should stay home, just in case.
But what if you can’t stay home and still pay the bills?
“I’ve been that way for the past week — with just a cough. And maybe it’s just a cold or allergies. It could be, but the fact is that I’m out there, I’m shopping for people’s items,” said one San Antonio Instacart shopper who asked to remain anonymous. “I need to make money, and I’m going to put that aside.”
With many San Antonians hunkered down, complying the city’s restrictive stay-at-home orders, gig workers are on overdrive trying to meet the flood of restaurant deliveries and grocery store shopping orders.
Those grocery shoppers and delivery drivers receive virtually no benefits, and each day face an elevated risk of contracting the virus.
The more one works to meet the demand, the greater the risk of getting sick. And with no sick leave, workers said they’ve had to choose between their livelihood and the public’s health and their own.
“I’m trying to decide if I want to continue to work as hard because I know that every time I set foot in a grocery store, I’m increasing the likelihood that I will get sick,” said one Shipt shopper who also requested anonymity so her Shipt account would not be deactivated. “If I get sick, I’m not going to be covered, and nobody is paying my bills.”
The pandemic has shown the absence of a safety net for gig workers, and has brought renewed public scrutiny to the technology-enabled gig economy, in which companies such as Uber, Shipt, Instacart, Lyft and others classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
That classification gives gig workers a greater degree of flexibility than most other workers, who can set their own work schedules. But it also means companies are largely able to avoid offering unemployment, health care or sick pay to workers.
“Corporations have long made the case that the nature of work is changing — people want flexibility in the 21st century economy,” said Brian Chen, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project and an advocate for gig workers. “But then you see these very low-paid individuals working through a pandemic just to pay the bills, and that shows you the reality of how much flexibility these workers have.
“This COVID pandemic has shown we have an entire group of workers who have no rights under our labor laws,” he said.
Over the last month, companies such as Instacart and Shipt have touted the protections and benefits they’re providing to workers during the crisis. The companies agreed to ease rules around grocery delivery time frames, made it easier for shoppers to pay and are waiving poor customer reviews.
The companies also said they’ll be providing workers with hand sanitizer and cleaning products in coming weeks.
“Our teams are working around the clock to safely serve all members of our community, and we’re incredibly grateful for Instacart shoppers like you who have stepped up as household heroes during this time,” Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta said in a note to workers late last month.
Along with Uber and Lyft, the companies also offered 14 days of paid sick time off for workers who test positive for COVID-19, though testing capacity is still limited in San Antonio and across the nation.
“It still seems like a joke,” said the Instacart shopper. “It’s already really difficult to get a test. Just because you have coronavirus doesn’t mean you’re going to get a test. It seems like it was a fake thing for Instacart to put up and say, ‘Oh, we’re doing this.’ But here’s all the fine print. It made a lot of people who didn’t read into it feel better.”
In separate interviews, four San Antonio gig workers all said they willingly take on the day-to-day risks of their work — that is, frequent contact with strangers. They said they’re committed to helping vulnerable people during the pandemic.
Many gig grocery shoppers work exclusively with clients wuth whom they’ve built a rapport. The majority of customers on Instacart and Shipt are elderly or people with weakened immune systems particularly at threat from the virus, shoppers said.
“When we all initially got into gig work, we got into it for a financial reason,” said a second Instacart shopper, who is also a health care worker and a nighttime Uber driver. “You need to close a gap in income. You need to pay for an extra class for college. You have unforeseen medical expenses. But when coronavirus hit, that reason changed for a lot of people.
“There is a bit of fear involved with me going out and going shopping, being in public when we’re told we shouldn’t be,” she said. “However, what would these people do if I didn’t do it?”
Several gig workers also said they enjoy the benefits of the flexible, informal nature of the work they do.
“It’s easy to pick up on, and you don’t have to register or fill out a lot of documentation,” the first Instacart shopper said. “You just open the app and get started. With the way we’re independent contractors, it would absolutely be nice if we have some benefit of health insurance. But the price you pay is you have such flexibility. ‘I’ve got an hour to kill? Maybe I can pick something up.’”
These days, the average gig grocery shopper in San Antonio starts their day at about 7 a.m. waiting in line outside of an H-E-B. After the hour-long wait for the store to open, shoppers dash inside — first to the cleaning supplies aisle, then a race to find any leftover perishable goods, such as ground beef.
Rideshare drivers have complained of a sharp drop in ridership recently, but shoppers said demand has skyrocketed for them in recent weeks. Before the pandemic, the first Instacart shopper may have completed 5 or 6 grocery orders in a full day; he now fulfills about 12 to 13 orders.
Two months ago, there may have been 20 to 30 grocery orders on the Shipt app at the start of each day, one shopper said. Now, there are between 600 and 700 orders at the start of every day, and around 250 orders go unfulfilled daily.
“The way I think of it is every offer is one family that needs groceries or cleaning supplies, so it’s kind of overwhelming because at the end of our days, it’s like 250 families we still haven’t helped,” the Shipt shopper said. “San Antonio has probably 2,500 (Shipt) shoppers. There’s a lot of shoppers, but a good portion of regular shoppers have stopped shopping because they’re scared of getting sick.”
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently asked President Donald Trump to provide relief for gig workers in the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress last week.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provision included in the package provides $600 per week in unemployment benefits for gig workers in Texas affected by the viral outbreak.
But while the benefits may help some gig workers in the short term, experts note the federal government funding unemployment insurance for them isn’t sustainable.
Under normal circumstances, gig workers don’t qualify for unemployment. Employers pay a payroll tax for each employee, which contributes to the pot of money in each state that’s available for workers seeking unemployment.
Because gig-economy platforms don’t classify workers as employees — oftentimes labeling them “entrepreneurs” — they don’t offer benefits or pay into the unemployment insurance fund for workers.
That’s left the general taxpayer to foot the bill for gig workers’ unemployment insurance.
“In a system working correctly, gig workers in Texas would by any measure be classified as full-time employees and would qualify for regular state unemployment insurance,” Chen said. “And it would be corporations like Uber and Lyft paying their fair share in the unemployment system, rather than have the government cover it during an emergency.”
Khosrowshahi and other tech executives have argued workers on the different platforms prefer flexibility, and categorizing drivers or shoppers as full-time employees would mean they’d lose the freedom to work when and where they want.
A Barclays analysis last summer found it would cost Uber and Lyft hundreds of millions just to reclassify drivers in California as employees, and could potentially bankrupt both companies.
In the meantime, the gig workers interviewed for this story, lacking health care benefits, said they’re doing what they can to keep themselves and their customers virus-free.
Each worker detailed their hygiene routines, which include sanitizing and spraying Lysol several times per day, and also sanitizing grocery bags before they’re left at a customers’ door, among other precautions.
The day ends with the shoppers immediately throwing their outfit in the washer and taking a shower.
“So many of the customers that I have right now, they’re elderly, and they’re like my family at this point,” said a second Shipt shopper. “I know I’m doing what I can for my family at home to reduce their risk of getting something from whatever I may have come in contact with potentially. But other people don’t have that option. There’s that feeling of a call to duty.”
Several gig workers said they have considered filing for unemployment, but said they would rather continue working if they’re able to.
They also said they hope the pandemic makes consumers reconsider the value of gig work.
“People are seeing the inequality at work when you have a certain set of people that are doing such essential work, but are so left behind by our existing labor laws and by employers,” Chen said. “What is the value of this work? Why don’t these workers have the most basic and fundamental protections at work?”