Last November, a single mom with a toddler in Spokane, Washington, signed up to work for Spark, the Walmart-owned delivery platform, because she heard it paid well and didn't require lots of social interaction. She could pick up already-packed orders in her car, without any of the shopping required by apps like Instacart and Shipt, or person-to-person contact required by Uber and Lyft. In the beginning, she brought home $700 a week.
But less than a month into the job, her income plummeted. Lucrative $15 orders were snatched up by other drivers before she could claim them; often the loading animation on the Spark app, the Walmart logo, would spin endlessly when she tried to accept an offer, and it would get scooped up by another driver. Drivers call it “the spinning wheel of death.” When we spoke in April, she said she was lucky if she brought home more than $500 in a 30-hour workweek, and relies on tips as her main source of income.
"I drove around for hours and occasionally one order would pop up, only to be accepted by another driver," she said. "I was very disappointed because I had expected the job to last.”
Motherboard granted the worker anonymity because she feared retaliation from Walmart for speaking to the media.
"The one thing that everyone goes through [on Spark] is the way they draw new hires in and give them priority," she continued. "At first you get overloaded with orders then quickly they start dwindling down. You can always tell when a lot of new people start working because the orders will disappear."
Things took a turn again for the worse when her car broke down while she was delivering for Spark. She used her stimulus checks to help pay for a $3,000 new car.
During the pandemic, Walmart and its delivery operations have expanded rapidly across the United States, in response to soaring demand for grocery deliveries and to keep up with its competitor, Amazon. The country's largest employer, Walmart said it hired 500,000 new employees, including 170,000 as personal shoppers who fulfill delivery and pick up orders. It has also increased delivery and pick up slots at its stores by 40 percent during the pandemic. At the peak of the pandemic delivery boom, Walmart said customer delivery and pick ups orders had increased by 400 percent.
The company would not disclose the number of gig workers on its Spark platform, but its website indicates that it operates in more than 230 U.S. metro areas. Walmart's mass hiring of personal shoppers in its stores suggests the company also rapidly onboarded new gig workers. Spark's largest unofficial Facebook group, "Spark Delivery Drivers Nationwide," has more than 3,100 members.
The expansion of Walmart's delivery operation during the pandemic has translated to fierce competition among gig workers for lucrative orders on its Spark app, workers told Motherboard. Posts on several private national Facebook groups for Walmart delivery drivers describe a similar situation. Spark drivers say they need to work longer hours to earn the same income and qualify for bonuses. Some are abandoning the app altogether for Target's delivery app, Shipt, because its customers tip better. (Other gig workers are leaving Shipt and Instacart for Spark.) In September, Motherboard reported that Shipt gig workers saw a decline in pay when the company switched from a transparent to an algorithmic pay model in 2020. Shipt's gig workers say they've continued to see low earnings in 2021.
In addition to Spark, Walmart also relies on third-party gig workers from DoorDash, Postmates, GrubHub, Instacart, and Roadie for deliveries. DoorDash recently surveyed one million of its gig workers and found widespread dissatisfaction with fulfilling Walmart orders, including low tips and long wait times—issues also voiced by Spark drivers. Until late 2020, Walmart's app did not allow customers to tip until after an order was delivered, an issue which also impacted Spark drivers. In October, at DoorDash's request, Walmart opened up the tipping window.
“Drivers who use the Spark Driver App are paid competitively per trip compared to other platforms," a Walmart spokesperson told Motherboard.
"It's gotten to the point where there are days where you have to work 12 hours with no break to make the same money I made working five or six hours when I originally started," a Spark driver in Lafayette, Indiana told Motherboard. "Very similar to Uber and Lyft.'"
Motherboard spoke to Spark drivers in Washington, Texas, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky who described "a bait and switch" story that has become familiar across the gig economy. Workers are drawn in with lucrative pay and bonuses, and plentiful offers, only to see their offerings and earnings nosedive. Spark drivers provided screenshots of their earnings that confirmed these changes.
Spark gig workers say they can wait for 15 minutes up to an hour for an order to be ready once they've accepted the order and notified Walmart that they've arrived at Walmart pick it up. This waiting time is compensated, usually a few dollars, as "effort pay," using a blackbox algorithm, or opaque pay structure.
"They don’t let us know what 'effort pay' is or how it's calculated. Otherwise we’d game the system," the Spark driver in Lafayette, Indiana, said. If a customer cancels an order, pay can be as low as $2.50, even if a driver has already paid for gas to get to the store and arrived to pick it up, according to screenshots received by Motherboard.
"Spark's pay has gotten a lot worse," a former school bus driver in El Paso, Texas who saw her work dry up when schools closed during the pandemic, told Motherboard. "When I started out in October, I was making $1,400 a week, and then boom—they drop you like a bad habit. Now I'm making $200 a week and have to supplement with DoorDash orders." The driver asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation from Spark. She said she buys dog bones for customers who own dogs, in part because she likes dogs, but also to increase her chances of being tipped.
The Spark driver in Lafayette, Indiana who had worked for Spark since 2019 told Motherboard that his earnings had dropped precipitously in the latter half of 2020. "They have gone down the path of Uber and the others," he told Motherboard. "They pull you in with good pay to start then slowly lower base pay while adding 'bonuses' if you do so many deliveries in a time frame."
Seemingly to make up for lower wages, Spark has adopted the strategy of offering its gig workers bonuses of up to $1,000 on a regular basis to incentivize more people to work on the app. One example of a bonus offering reviewed by Motherboard is $1,000 if a driver completes 300 deliveries between November 11, 2020 and January 12, 2021. Another bonus Motherboard viewed offered $20 for completing four orders in a day. Drivers say the market is so saturated with workers competing for orders, they often cannot complete enough orders to qualify for the bonuses.
"I got a notification last week that if I did 15 shops over the weekend, they’d give a $450 bonus," said a driver in Evansville, Indiana. "I only got two orders."
A spokesperson for Walmart said bonus offerings serve to entice new workers onto the app and keep them working on the platform. Bonuses vary from gig workers to gig worker, based on factors including driver lifecycle, supply and demand, and delivery zone characteristics.
The driver in Evansville told Motherboard that his bonus offerings were significantly more demanding than his wife's who works on the app much less than he does. "They're gamifying the process to get you to do as much as you can and a little more," he said.
In addition to its mass hiring, Walmart has taken other steps to compete with Amazon and other e-commerce retailers. In January, it began installing mini robot-operated warehouses, known as market fulfillment centers, to help expand its delivery network. Last September, Walmart launched Walmart Plus, a new unlimited same-day delivery subscription service for $98 a year to compete with Amazon Prime and Whole Foods on same-day deliveries.
Similar to Instacart, DoorDash, Postmates, and other gig economy competitors, Walmart Spark uses blackbox algorithm to determine pay and who receives which offers and bonuses, which makes it difficult to calculate by how much and in what regions pay has dropped.
A spokesperson for Walmart told Motherboard that orders are sent to drivers based on their rate of accepting previous orders, but in late March, Spark completed the rollout of an optional new feature called Spark Now that distributes orders to drivers who indicate that they're online based on a number of factors, including fairness to drivers who have waited the longest for orders. Drivers told Motherboard the new option hadn't been around long enough to determine whether this new process would distribute orders and earnings more equitably.
Unlike Silicon Valley delivery apps popular in big cities and middle class suburbs, Walmart Spark operates mainly in lower income communities outside of major metropolitan areas, with a big presence throughout the Midwest, the South, and Florida.
In 2018, Walmart launched Spark, which is powered by the third-party vendor provider Delivery Drivers Inc., to reach rural customers where other gig economy apps don't deliver. Delivery Drivers Inc. provides Walmart with driver sourcing and screening, background checks, and a payment facilitator, but Walmart controls its drivers orders, pay, and other working conditions. Like Instacart, DoorDash, Uber, and Lyft, Spark drivers are classified as independent contractors meaning they don't have any of the traditional benefits of employment such as minimum wage guarantees, worker's compensation, and paid time off.
Spark drivers often make 30 mile round-trips from Walmart to customers’ homes to drop off orders. When customers don't tip, drivers say they sometimes break even or lose money once they subtract the cost of fuel and taxes. On orders paid for with EBT cards, or food stamps, which drivers say are common, there's no tipping option for customers.
Do you work for Walmart or Spark and have a tip to share with us? Please get in touch with Lauren, the reporter, via email Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org or Signal 201-897-2109.
"If customers don’t tip, you don’t get minimum wage after gas costs," the Spark driver in Lafayette, Indiana told Motherboard. "There have been days when the store is running behind and I didn’t get bonuses and drove lots of miles and I didn’t make any money."
"I’m fortunate that I can afford to not take unprofitable offers," he continued. "People doing this because they need the income to survive are forced into taking unprofitable trips because of fear of not making bonuses or not getting future offers."
To encourage customers to tip more generously, the Spark driver in Spokane buys bags of candy from Walmart, and holographic thank-you cards and stickers from Amazon and tacks them on to her deliveries. "I noticed tips go up slightly…. so it's worth it," she said.
Spark drivers also say the app is filled with glitches. Motherboard spoke to nine Spark drivers who said they'd lost orders they'd been offered because the app stalls so frequently.
"It's very glitchy," the Spark driver in Evansville, Indiana told Motherboard. "Sometimes the Walmart icon just spins and spins and spins. By the time it stops, you've missed out on the order."