Growing worker discontent threatens to disrupt online delivery operations as demand surges

As grocery outlets and retailers across the country ramp up employment to keep up with demand during the coronavirus outbreak, they’re facing growing backlash from workers who say their lives are being put at risk. 

Instacart workers staged a walkout Monday, citing a list of demands including hazard pay, an extra $5 per order, and an extension of paid sick leave. In Staten Island, New York, nearly 100 Amazon (AMZN) workers at the facility known as JFK8 went on strike, urging the tech giant to “cease all operations” until additional safety measures are put in place for employees.

On Tuesday, Whole Foods Market employees plan to take part in a nationwide “sick out” urging the company to guarantee hazard pay and proper sanitation equipment, among a list of demands.

A statement released by Gig Workers Collective, the group organizing the Instacart walkout said, “Instacart has turned this pandemic into a PR campaign, portraying itself as the hero of families that are sheltered-in-place, isolated, or quarantined,” and adding that, “They are profiting astronomically off of us literally risking our lives, all while refusing to provide us with effective protection, meaningful pay, and meaningful benefits.”

Growing worker discontent threatens to disrupt online delivery operations that have become lifelines amid government-mandated stay at home orders across the country. Amazon has already announced that it is hiring 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers to deal with a surge in online orders. Instacart’s order volume has grown by more than 150% year-over-year, according to company figures. It has called for an additional 300,000 “full service shoppers” in the next 3 months, hailing its workers as “household heroes for families, grandparents, and people in need.”

But some current workers say the platform’s treatment has been far from heroic. 

Rosa Mendoza began delivering for Instacart part-time this month, after the San Francisco Bay Area’s mandatory shelter-in-place order drastically reduced her rideshare bookings for Uber (UBER). She was optimistic about her prospects, after hearing about the huge demand for grocery deliveries. Instead, she says, long lines at the stores have slowed the number of batches or deliveries she can complete in a day, limiting her earnings. With little safety protection, Mendoza says the risks have started to weigh on her.

“They don’t give us any mask or cloth or disinfectant. They don’t give us anything,” Mendoza said. “But I have to work because I have to pay my rent.”

Instacart paints a more lucrative picture for shoppers, saying their earnings have jumped by more than 40% month-over-month because of increased demand. The company has also laid out additional safety measures, in response to worker concerns, including working with a third party to manufacture hand sanitizers for Instacart shoppers. It has also extended sick pay benefits to part-time employees that can be used for illness or injury and introduced a tip default setting, so completed orders default to the customer’s last top amount, instead of the 5% default previously.

“Our team has had an unwavering commitment to prioritize the health and safety of the entire Instacart community,” said Nilam Ganenthiran, the President of Instacart, in a statement. “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 company added, that the walkout had little impact on its operations Monday, citing a 40% surge in shoppers on the platform, compared to the same time last week.

Employee concerns haven’t been limited to Instacart and Amazon. Many Uber and Lyft (LYFT) employees have parked their cars, concerned about contracting the coronavirus from passengers. Those like Saori Okawa, an Uber driver in San Francisco, switched over to food delivery with Postmates and DoorDash, after stay-at-home orders led to a spike in online orders.

She used to bring $200 home for a 12-hour day with Uber. Now she makes less than that, working for two separate platforms. While both DoorDash and Postmates have offered “no-contact” deliveries in response to the virus outbreak, Okawa said restaurant pick-up windows remained crowded, with no adherence to the Centers for Disease Control’s 6-feet-apart social distancing rules.

Earlier this month, DoorDash CEO Tony Xu released a statement saying his company would ship more than 1 million sets of hand sanitizers and gloves to delivery workers on DoorDash and Caviar platforms, adding that he would also work closely with restaurants to “enhance their food preparation protocols.”

“I just feel that it is not a safe environment, but I have no choice,” Okawa said, adding that delivery is her only source of income. “I feel nervous because I don’t want to bring [the virus] home … We don’t have any benefits.”

 Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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