The Truth About How Instacart Pays Their Shoppers

I am writing this in response to this petition (which I have signed and you should as well!) however I am not officially affiliated with Working Washington and am speaking on my own accord.

I deliver groceries for instacart in Puyallup, WA. I also deliver restaurant food, walk dogs, clean houses, watch children, work for other grocery apps, and have my own business where I teach natural solutions and aromatherapy. I do all of this work around my son’s school schedule which includes several unexpected absences for illness as a single parent. I wish I could give all of my energy and passion for customer service to one app/job but they all have differing busy times and pay. There is an assumption that people who do gig work do so to make extra money “on the side” but the reality is most of us do this in order to survive. Most of the people I know who do instacart do so around another job, school, or childcare or as their full time job. Many of them navigate this work around health issues. They need the flexibility that the gig apps offer. We take this work seriously and give it all of ourselves like we would with a typical job.
Today, for example, after I drop my son off at school I will be doing grocery delivery. I will then work the lunch rush with restaurant delivery. Depending on which apps are busiest I may continue that until school pick up or grab another grocery order. Once I pick my son up from school I will be driving him north for his dad’s weekend. Once I am there I will be working the dinner rush with food delivery (that district usually has a peak bonus at that time) while I wait out the dreaded 167 rush hour traffic. Once I am home I will grab myself a late dinner and care for my own dog before I head back out to deliver food for the Friday night drinking crowd (I really love that this service ensures less drunk drivers are on the road — get your greasy food delivered straight to where you are!). I will then work several apps throughout the weekend (I am expecting Sunday to be busy for the big game). I have already worked 4 days this week but the school hours are usually less pay so I spend every weekend I have free like this. I recently had a surgery that took me out of work for two months due to a lifting restriction (with no sick leave even with Washington’s new laws based on that because I am not an “employee”) and am trying to pay back bills — even with all of these hours working it is very difficult when some of the apps are paying under minimum wage or making us live solely off of tips. A large portion of my small pay goes back into car maintenance, insurance, and gas. I also must save for healthcare expenses and taxes.
While all of these apps have their own shortcomings instacart is the most barbaric of them all. While they once provided decent earnings ($35–70 per order) their new pay structure and promotion of their yearly membership has shoppers making significantly less. We regularly now see orders under $15 because the minimum delivery is waived for those with a membership. I now make less in one day than I would have made in one order 4 months ago due to the pay changes and long gaps between orders. The suggested tip for these orders is only 5% (and I can not fathom why instacart would encourage that percentage to their customers when the industry standard is 20%. It just reiterates that instacart does not see their drivers as human beings and they are encouraging their customers to not as well.) Our districts are large and with regular app glitches and penalties for declining orders we can end up working for well under minimum wage with large drive times. On top of all of this we now have proof that instacart is adjusting our wages to be lower if there is a tip included up front instead of the tip being on top of our base pay (and there have been questions raised by customers and drivers on if they are doing even worse than that and actually pocketing some which is against their public statements and our contracts). Here (and here) is an example of an order I declined yesterday — Instacart expected me to pick up two orders in Puyallup (the first order was over 25 items) and deliver the first one in Federal Way and the second one on the way back from Federal Way to Puyallup. The total showed to me was $13.94 however this includes a $2 tip (I am leery that two orders came with a $2 tip even but that’s another battle). This included a gas incentive (which instacart loves to act as if they are giving us something great with) for 4.5 miles (again we have regular glitches on this in the app — just to the first home from the store was over 12 miles). Normally this would be 30+ minutes just from the store to the first delivery address. Everyone who lives in the Seattle area knows that after 3 pm (when this order was offered) highway traffic can add an hour or more to these moderate time estimates. They expected me to work over 2 hours and use my own gas for less than half of minimum wage (the batch total was actually $11.94 for both shops and deliveries and minimum wage here is $12). If a tip was removed after the service was provided my original base pay would not be adjusted back up. Customers have three days to adjust tips and the drivers regularly get tips removed for things out of our control (say I had gotten lost to the first house, gotten stuck in traffic, or the store was out of several of the items the customer wanted). The day after this batch instacart announced we would now have a standard base pay of $3 per order (however they have not made clear which day it will go into effect). This $3 bump was in response to a local story about someone who did two hours of work for less than $1 and the public outcry over it. While I am glad our speaking out is intimidating instacart I feel this is nothing more than an attempt to make us simmer down and is not in fact a good faith effort. In contrast — My base pay for delivering restaurant food is $6.50 per order with bonuses and tips on top of that for much less work (I am not actually in the store shopping for up to an hour and the delivery distances are shorter). We did not just ask for a pay raise. We asked for transparency in how our pay is calculated. Every single order should have itemized pay that we can understand and it should be consistent throughout the zone. “Payment including x tip” is not the level of transparency we are in need of. Along with the “raise” Instacart has just come forward denying that they lower batches based on tips and even denying that shoppers are making 30%+ less than they were before November. They claim this is a glitch that is few and far between. But a quick look at reddit (where thousands of instacart shoppers tell their stories) says this is much more than a one off. If this was a simple glitch or “1 in 100,000” I would not have my own similar screencaps and stories — nor would majority of the local people driving for instacart. The minuscule pay bump and lack of any self awareness is insulting. This is gas lighting at it’s finest. It’s very clear that the owners of the company have never done a single delivery and are completely unaware of what customers and employees need. Instacart has an opportunity as a leader of the delivery industry to set a standard of care for employees but they have instead decided to focus on nothing more than attracting new customers.
We also have unattainable bonuses that are borderline false advertising. For example our referral bonus is over $1000. I had made an agreement with the friend who referred me that I would try my best to earn her it and we would split the profits. However instacart adjusted the orders I was able to get in that time so that she would not be eligible. I would work 24 hours without a single order — while my friend in the same district who usually is swamped with instacart alone and regularly does double orders was on vacation. As soon as my 30 days of working were up — the orders came pouring in. There’s no way for us to prove issues like this but in online spaces where gig workers are we know it is too common to be a coincidence (or a “glitch”).
While we are technically independent contractors (which is how instacart gets away with low pay, not paying L&I if we are injured on the job, no healthcare, no sick leave, no money pulled out for taxes, etc) — we are treated as employees more so than with any other app. We are very much told how and when we will work. We are penalized for everything (like ending our shift early to get sick kids from school even when my district regularly has 15–30 people wait listed for hours who would happily pick up the shops). We are unable to choose to not work with customers who have made us uncomfortable. We are told we can deny orders for heavy weights — but unfortunately that part of the app rarely works and does not take into consideration 3rd story apartments or multiple cases of water. The shopper support we do have is usually a time consuming event with inexperienced workers who give inconsistent answers (I suspect low wages and a poor environment in our call center as well resulting in a large turnover) — and then we get penalized for taking too long on a shop while we were having checkout issues and on the phone with support for over 10 minutes. Even when it is a direct issue with their system and their support — we have our scores lowered which can impact the future orders we get. With this amount of control we really should be considered employees (which would entitle us to consistent minimum wage and the state appointed sick leave) instead of independent contractors or we should actually have the flexibility that instacart advertises. We should be able to decline orders without punishment. We should be able to take breaks without punishment. In all honestly — we just want to be treated like human beings instead of replaceable robots. None of the other apps I am on treat me like every single issue is my fault and that I am “unreliable”. And while most of them don’t hit our state’s higher minimum wage they at least get in the ball park once you average out the entire day as well as have attainable bonuses to get us over our normal pay. Nobody should be working several hours for less than half of minimum wage particularly with this level of control by the company. That is not justifiable.
We are asking for a more transparent and reasonable pay which would benefit us and the customers as well as asking for more consistent pay and flexibility. We want to work hard and feed our families just like everyone else in the community. Instacart was valued at over $7B. They can afford to treat their workers better while keeping the service affordable for the customers. They can afford to give us a better app and support so that we can better serve our customers. They can absolutely afford to run an ethical business that will work for the long term — but we need the help of our customers to ensure they are pushed to do so. The money should not be going to a few people at the top and should in fact go to the people who are doing the labor (and sometimes very physical and draining labor at that).
Please do not boycott instacart. Without any orders many of us would not have the ability to earn an income at all. Instacart is one of the most advertised apps and is the most accessible to many customers due to price and location. We already have a willing and able workforce and large customer base on this app. Instead help us to hold instacart accountable and demand changes. Tell them how it feels to be misled on the tips you are giving not being used to increase our pay. Tell your friends to do so as well. Before your order leave a $0.22 tip with your order. This order will signal to the shopper that the tip will be changed after the work is done (as is industry standard) and that you are aware of what we are dealing with and stand in solidarity. Instacart will be unable to change our base pay based on a tip of that size. And feel free to write this in the chat box — instacart can see those. Once we deliver you can change the tip amount in the app or tip in cash. Preferably above 5% but obviously that is up to you. And consider giving us a 5 star review — that not only leaves you another space for comment but it helps us show our value to the company and makes us eligible for a $3 bonus.
I am encouraging all other instacart shoppers to strike on 2/22 in conjunction with the 22 cent movement. If you are ordering that day please be patient with your shoppers! If you are a shopper what I suggest you do is use the “go online” option (versus picking up hours) and then decline all orders for that entire day. When you are prompted for a reason use the other box and let instacart know you are striking for a reasonable wage for your labor. Many orders will be late or cancelled which will cause frustrated phone calls to the company. Lost profits is a great way for us to be heard.
I will continue doing app work — even through instacart — for some time. This works for my life right now and allows me time to parent my child when he is sick or to volunteer. I love the different scenery and people I see every day. I really enjoy most of our customers. Many of them tell me about their day or let me pet their dogs. I do believe this is a necessary service for our society. Many of my customers are disabled, elderly, have new babies, have the flu, don’t have a car, or work strange hours. I love that this service exists for them. It really does deeply hurt my heart that these are the exact people in my community being misled and potentially ripped off by instacart which is why I want the company to make changes. If I was paid just a bit better or treated with a little more humanity — it would be that much easier for me to pass that lack of a stress on to my customers. It would be easier for me to focus on the order at hand and not the 3 apps I have to run at the same time to ensure I can pay my bills. I could in turn be quicker, more efficient, and offer better customer service which would eventually earn instacart more money. You can have good ethics and still have a successful business. They aren’t mutually exclusive. If instacart puts their profits back into the workers and the app it will pay off for them. I hope that with the help of the customers and the shoppers joining together that we can push instacart into the company we would love to be working for.
And one last PSA while I have your attention — We love when you give us delivery instructions! Even just the paint color and car in the driveway can be so helpful. Remember to turn on your lights and make sure your address is visible! This ensures we can get your order to you quickly and safely. We appreciate your orders!

Update: Since writing this story yesterday (and the messages I have received since doing so) I have seen some more issues with instacart that need to be addressed as a part of this conversation.

Shoppers are dealing with a “glitch” where when they deny a batch (sometimes even twice) the app force accepts it. When these shoppers reach out to instacart to remove it they are told doing so will end their hours. When shoppers end their hours early they get penalized with what instacart refers to as “a reliability instance” which requires thirty days of work to dissolve. Repeated reliability instances cause us to get worse or less orders sent to us and can result in termination as a shopper. With this particular force acceptance issue shoppers are reaching out to support only to be treated as if they are lying and told that they will receive a reliability instance. I had a fellow worker send me a screen cap today where instacart told her that they can see when the app force accepts versus when we accept (which is admitting that the app does force accept orders!) and that she was lying and had accepted it and changed her mind (again, to an order she had already declined twice. It was 40 minutes away where the milage was only going to be credited for a mile and a half and she was going to receive low pay for shopping for 85 items because the customer had chosen to leave a tip). Instacart support finally admitted there is a force acceptance “glitch” that they have been monitoring but even with that they refused to acknowledge instacart fault in this issue and continued to blame the shopper. (here are the receipts for this interaction — one, two, three, four. The shopper who dealt with this does not have permission but has given permission to share her screen caps.) After asking other shoppers I have come to find out this is a common occurrence. To this shopper alone this has happened three times in the last week but she is far from the only shopper who has dealt with this (and some of them who noted this issue have not shopped for instacart since the pay decline in November meaning this is a long term problem). This is directly conflicting with us being independent contractors. If we can not deny work (particularly work that we feel the wage is not worth us doing) without penalty we are employees more than we are contractors. Interestingly enough instacart has already been in court for the employee vs contractor issue (in March of 2017 they settled a lawsuit at $4.6M. This lawsuit even included issue with pooling tips. Sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it?).

Speaking of app issues — today was the day before the Superbowl. This is one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the year (tenfold for delivery). Instacart claims they are an industry leader however they did not prepare for this Saturday evening + super bowl preparation rush. The site actually crashed preventing many users from ordering — while several workers (myself included) were sitting outside grocery stores for hours waiting to do that work once again leaving us with an unpredictable amount of work and pay for the hours worked.

Where is the the money that the employees and contractors are not getting paid going if not to app and server maintenance? Well, when the CEO has a net worth of over $600M (and that figure is from over two years ago) it is pretty obvious who is benefiting from missing tips and over inflated customer bills (which, no surprise here, there is also not a transparent fee basis for. Many companies add a certain amount of cents on top of the store products but instacart’s pricing is completely unpredictable when compared with actual store pricing). (And speaking of customer bills — there’s been a bit of outcry over instacart charging membership fees while customers are in a “free trial” period or unauthorized renewals that instacart refuses to remove even when the customers no longer use or don’t plan to use instacart. As well as charging customers for more items than they received (which it is very easy to blame the shoppers for when we are instructed to not give customers their actual store receipts). Customers are more often than not finding they paid more than expected when all is said and done at the same time that shoppers are making less than than expected per shop. There is a huge financial discrepancy that is clearly going somewhere.) While being rich is not inherently a bad quality in a person it is a moral issue when it is on the backs of a low income workforce (and as I said — many of us have health problems, disabilities, or are single parents). Apoorva Mehta (the CEO of instacart) has a loft worth $3.8M which he regularly gets his groceries delivered to and he has the audacity to not tip the many shoppers who actually deliver his personal groceries (many of them have come forward about this on reddit). That is the example he is choosing to set as a leader of this company.

I also learned about a previous strike of instacart shoppers (information here). At what point do we quit giving this company chances? How long will they continue to deny these same allegations and pretending they’re changing for the better while they just keep recycling through the same poor practices in the name of profits? The unfortunate truth is when instacart eventually fails it will hurt the underpaid shoppers and clients who absolutely need the delivery service (such as disabled customers) the most. There are other grocery shopping apps available however many of them aren’t yet available in the same markets, have much higher pricing, or have similar low pay issues. I honestly am not sure what the solution is or where all of this service should go instead of instacart long term. This is why instacart needs to improve in the mean time. We need a transparent and livable pay. We need a better app and support team. Even in light of new information I still strongly believe in the 22 cent movement and the 2/22 strike. But it won’t be the end all to solve instacart’s many issues. This is why it is absolutely necessary that every customer (as well as elected officials and activists who discuss worker rights) hears the plight of those of us doing the shopping. I am not sure how many instacart shoppers there are total (and it is an ever changing number) but there is a lot of people in every state (and Canada) they are active who is living with this kind of treatment and pay. Clearly hush hush lawsuit settlements and putting a pretty face to the media have made sure that these long term issues are continually swept under the rug leaving instacart to get away with keeping poor workers poor and misleading their customers. Please continue to share and participate in the conversation so together we can find a solution.