A Personal Reflection on Gig Work

Monday we celebrate Labor Day here in the US. The American Dream promises each of us the opportunity to live the good life if only we work hard, invest wisely, and get really lucky.

To shed light on the plight of today’s American worker, Oxfam recently ranked the best and worst states to work (including D.C. and Puerto Rico). The best? Oregon, California and Washington. The worst? North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia.

Alabama isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we’re only four rungs up. You’d think with all the federal money flowing into this state we could do much better. Alabamians believe that if you’re struggling, it has nothing to do with the low minimum wage, business-friendly (translation: worker suppression) laws, unaffordable rent, or subversive bigotry and misogyny. No, if you’re struggling it’s your own damn fault. Better start pulling up on those bootstraps and keep your legs closed.

I work to give these guys a better life.

In addition to working a full-time job, I do gig work to supplement my income and clean up the mess the post office helped make of my credit. Gig workers are invisible to most people. We who deliver your food, groceries, booze, or meds are paid by the job, with no benefits and no protections.

Since Instacart started moving toward going public, pay has consistently decreased while worker stresses have increased. The latest way Instacart scams its contractor shoppers is to allow customers to add items to the order after a shopper has accepted it. Nothing wrong there, right? Wrong. Let’s say I pick up a six-item order for a customer who lives six miles from the store. My actual travel will be 16 miles, because I live two miles from the store and wherever I go, I must return. The pay for Instacart shop and deliver orders around here is $7 to cover my time, my gas, and use of my vehicle. These small orders usually include a $2 tip. Not much pay; still, if I hustle, I can make orders like these work.

Except when I walk in the store, I see other items have been added, or are added to the order while I’m shopping. That quick shop has turned into a cross-country race. You know what didn’t change? The amount I’m paid. It’s still $7 with a $2 tip for an order I wouldn’t have accepted had it originally listed as a 20-item order.

Customers who order from stores like Aldi also rate us on our bagging skills which include being able to correctly guess the exact number of paper bags I’ll need.

Do not for one minute think Instacart cares. If I don’t shop it, someone more desperate will. I’ve seen shoppers accept orders that made me shake my head in wonder. I could choose to decline the order, but I’ve already driven to the store. Besides, Instacart is vindictive af and keeps score when you cancel an order. Cancel one too many times and you’ll be booted off the platform.

I deliver occasionally for GrubSouth, a locally owned delivery service. Their contracted drivers must lease the shirts and insulated bags that in turn advertise for the company (not the contract driver). They recently offered to lease me a sign for my car. Uh, no. Drivers sign a contract stating the driver is responsible for the cost of the delivery should something happen during transit. Deliver to the wrong house? Get in a wreck? That driver is covering the cost of that order. GrubSouth has, on occasion, sent some quite rude messages to their contractors. And they wonder why they can’t keep drivers.

I used to deliver for Walmart through Point Pickup. The first delivery I made for them paid $12. They now pay a “minimum payment,” which is deceiving. For instance, the driver accepts a delivery and is told to expect to make a minimum of $10. The job actually pays $4.50. If customer Ms. Waffleburger tips her delivery person $5.50, she actually tips Point Pickup, not the driver. The amount of time it takes to deliver one of their orders greatly depends on how well Walmart does at loading their drivers; here they’re not that good. And since drivers can schedule only one delivery at a time, I found I was making almost nothing as my earnings barely covered gas, vehicle maintenance, insurance, and use of personal cell phone and internet service.

Also true with gig platforms.

While most customers are ok, some are rude. Some won’t respond to texts or calls to discuss substitutions, then give their shopper a low rating because they didn’t like the substitution chosen (customers can opt for no substitutions). Some won’t turn on outdoor lights at night and expect their delivery person to blindly lug groceries to their front door. Some customers in rural areas don’t mention they have free-roaming dogs. Some take away tips and rate their shopper poorly for the slightest dissatisfaction. Yes, customers have a right to not tip. Of course the platforms accept no responsibility for any of this, and as contract workers we have no recourse.

Granted, it’s not all roses for customers either. Gig platforms such as Instacart and Point Pickup have made some questionable choices in the people they allow to contract with them. And shoppers are not perfect. Monday morning as I was loading my car to head to Nashville, I grabbed my insulated bags to put in the trunk and discovered two pizzas that used to be frozen. They’d been in there at least a week. I apologize to the person who ordered them; I don’t remember who you are.

This Labor Day I hope you take a moment to thank those who make your life easier, and remember that even though the services of a gig worker may cost you a pretty penny, those pennies don’t trickle down to the person actually working for you.


18 thoughts on “A Personal Reflection on Gig Work

  1. My sister worked with Instacart for a couple of years, but after awhile, she decided it wasn’t worth it. Not only did she not make much money, but she delivered to some pretty shady addresses. I think the meth-lab-house delivery was the last straw. Stay safe out there!

  2. Great post but not totally unexpected. We have never used Instacart and prolly never will. The store we order from delivers directly and says all tips go to the driver. We’ve gotten a few lousy substitutions but the store is responsible for them, not the driver. We’ve learned where the do not substitute button is located (hidden). I wish you didn’t live in a red state with rude people.

    1. Red states are what they are because the white people here are manipulated by wealthy people, corporations, and even churches into allowing the rich to thrive at the expense of struggling individuals. It’s not just a Red State problem. Many of those who benefit from our misery live in Blue states.

      1. Dear Jen,

        I can’t agree with you more. They all amount to exploitation and are fundamentally no better than modern-day slavery and sweat shops, which disproportionately benefit corporate interest, the rich and powerful, the corrupt and the plutocrats.

        Yours sincerely,

  3. Before I started working full time again, I did some work for a company called Appen. They have a lot of different projects but I only rated Instagram ads four hours a week for $11 an hour. Not much money but considering I could do it at home or in the car (if my wife was driving) it was worth it.

  4. I so wish gig workers had some leverage at their employers. They seem to be getting rich on the backs of hard working people like yourself all the while not caring about the thankless work you’re doing so they and their shareholders can increase their 401K’s.

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