Online grocery orders are up as Alaskans hunker down, but some Instacart shoppers say the job isn’t worth the risk

Hundreds of people stood in line to checkout in Costco on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The grocery delivery service Instacart has surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, Instacart shoppers across the country went on strike, demanding more safety protections and better pay.

Some longtime Instacart shoppers in Alaska agree with the strike. But others are happily filling orders at a time when jobs are scarce.

MJ Riemann’s family is taking Anchorage’s hunker down order really seriously, avoiding unnecessary trips to public places. Riemann is a small business owner and said a big medical bill could be “ruinous” for her family.

But they need to eat. So when Riemann realized she could get her groceries delivered through an app on her phone, she was intrigued.

“I can’t help but want to use the service,” said Riemann, “because I really don’t want anyone in my family going into public spaces right now. We’re being super careful.”

Riemann said she does feel conflicted about asking someone else to shop for her. She said she hopes the company is looking out for its shoppers.

Instacart has a lot of new customers like Riemann. According to the company, customers are ordering more groceries than ever through the app. And people are signing up to be paid shoppers in huge numbers, too.

People like Mike Volz.

“Right before it got nuts, I got on board,” said Volz. “And then it got crazy where — I mean every order you get hand sanitizer and toilet paper, or the shelves are bare of basic items like beans and rice. It got pretty crazy trying to go shopping for about a week and a half or so there.”

Volz, who worked for many years as a dental assistant, likes the flexibility of the job — he can choose which orders to accept, when he wants to work, and how often.

And, he said, he’s making some good money. Recently, Volz said he made more than $1,600 in one week, before taxes. He said there’s enough work that he could put in 12 hour days every day if he wanted to.

On March 30, when Instacart workers across the country went on strike, Volz kept working.

“I like working for a living,” said Volz. “People still need their groceries, and with everything going on, I’d rather go out myself and make sure they have what they need, versus more people being out in the public and putting themselves needlessly at risk.”

In a public post on March 27, the organization Gig Workers Collective called on Instacart to provide personal protective equipment and hazard pay. They also said Instacart should extend and expand sick pay for workers impacted by COVID-19.

Instacart has defended its policies in public posts, and in an emailed statement the company said its offering sick leave for shoppers diagnosed with COVID-19, or placed in mandatory quarantine. It also said shoppers can accrue sick pay, and they can earn bonuses for working right now.

Marie Johnston has been shopping for Instacart since it launched in Alaska in 2018, and she runs a Facebook group for workers. But a few weeks ago, she stopped taking orders.

She said as more people signed up to work for Instacart, she saw her pay go down. She said she supports the strike.

“Unfortunately there have been a lot of changes over the last few years with the way Instacart pays us,” said Johnston. “Because there are so many people that are available and wanting to get as much money as they possibly can, which is understandable with the current situation that we’re dealing with. They’re continuing to pay us less and less every single day.”

Johnston said she initially wasn’t worried about her own safety. But eventually, she became concerned about potential exposure to the virus at stores. Between that and the issue of lower pay, she said she decided it wasn’t worth it to keep working.

Amber McClelland is also a longtime shopper who recently called it quits for now. She said she worried about the cost and availability of the cleaning supplies she felt she needed to keep herself and her customers safe.

“So you have to have all of these extra costs and supplies,” said McClelland. “That’s a fear in itself: Am I going to run out of these things? Am I not going to be able to keep myself safe, keeping customers safe? With those supplies dwindling here in town, it is a scary thought. I’m going to run out of supplies to protect me and my family as well.”

Instacart said it’s taking steps to reduce contact between shoppers and customers and distributing hand sanitizer. Though Johnston said when she tried to request a bottle, it appeared to be out of stock.

On April 2, Instacart said it would go a step further and allow shoppers to order a free “health and safety kit.” The kit includes a face mask, hand sanitizer, and a thermometer.

Alaska Public Media

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