Gig workers take back power amid unprecedented challenges

March 27, 2020 View comment (1)
A man delivers groceries in New York City on March 20 as the coronavirus continues to spread across the US. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images North America)

The coronavirus pandemic is quickly changing the public perception of gig workers and redefining how they are treated by employers and the law.

Large sectors of the US economy have halted, leaving Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts and other gigsters without a paycheck and exposing a gap in the social safety net. Meanwhile, delivery workers for companies like Instacart and Postmates are taking on additional risk at a time when much of society is hunkering down at home.

Even as they face unprecedented challenges, gig workers are claiming early wins.

The $2 trillion emergency stimulus package signed into law on Friday extended unemployment benefits to part-time workers who normally don't qualify. An additional $600 per week for the first four months of unemployment, on top of state benefits, is included in the rescue package. More coronavirus news: Continuing coverage from PitchBook

Just as demand for grocery delivery soars in the US, Instacart workers are planning a national strike to begin Monday that will test the collective bargaining power of a decentralized workforce.

Instacart shoppers are asking for hazard pay of $5 per delivery, safety gear such as hand sanitizer, an extension to existing sick pay benefits, and paid sick leave for workers with pre-existing conditions who have been advised by doctors to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.

The gig workers' tactics follow a well-established playbook used by full-time employees in government and private industries. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York are planning to walk off the job on Monday, according to CNBC, following strikes by Amazon workers in Italy and sanitation employees in Pittsburgh. All are asking for safer working conditions as the coronavirus spreads.

Tech firms have long resisted extending benefits to part-time workers. A California law that went into effect this year made it more difficult to classify workers as independent contractors, aiming to broaden the pool of workers that are eligible for benefits.

Uber, Lyft and Postmates have shown defiance against the law since it was implemented. But as the epidemic casts a spotlight on the consequence of poor safety nets, the case for restricting benefits has become harder to defend.

In response to the outbreak, Instacart previously offered sick pay to all workers, as well as two weeks of pay for shoppers and part-time workers who contracted COVID-19 or were placed in quarantine. The company also allows for drop-off deliveries to avoid unnecessary contact.

On Friday, when the strike plans were announced, Instacart extended its sick pay offering and announced a bonus program for shoppers as well as safety-related measures. Then on Sunday, the company said it would distribute disinfecting supplies to full-service shoppers, and rolled out new tipping settings that are meant to encourage higher and more consistent tips.

Instacart is the most well-funded VC-backed grocery delivery company in the US, having raised nearly $2 billion from investors including D1 Capital Partners, Coatue Management and Sequoia, according to PitchBook data.

If the strike is successful, it could put even more pressure on already strained delivery networks. The companies behind the most popular grocery delivery services—Amazon, Walmart and Instacart—are hiring a combined 500,000-plus workers to keep up with demand.

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