Instacart Is Punishing Its Gig Workers for Orders They Can't Deliver

The grocery delivery app is adding a new level of instability to its gig workers lives by temporarily suspending the accounts of workers who cancel grocery orders for reasons they say are beyond their control.
A worker delivers a package to someone's door.
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Instacart is temporarily suspending the accounts of its gig workers who cancel grocery orders for reasons they say are beyond their control, thereby cutting them off from their income. 

The company claims these temporary "pauses," which last at least 24 hours, are a preventative measure against fraud. But workers say Instacart is suspending their accounts after canceling orders in situations such as a customer not being present or responsive when they've requested in-person deliveries, a customer acting out or making threats, an underage customer ordering alcohol, or a customer providing the wrong address. 


An Instacart spokesperson declined to tell Motherboard when the new fraud protection policy which puts a temporary hold on gig workers' accounts for review began, but said, "protecting the security and integrity of the Instacart platform is very important to us. We have a dedicated team focused on fraud prevention measures and may temporarily pause a shopper’s account if we suspect fraudulent or unusual activity related to an order." 

Instacart did not inform workers of this policy change; workers discovered the change by crowdsourcing feedback from Instacart support reps on an Instacart Facebook group in recent days, where it has been a topic of conversation. Instacart has now confirmed this policy's existence and purpose to Motherboard. 

"This happened to me when I had them cancel an order the day the card systems were down," a Instacart gig worker posted on Facebook for Instacart shoppers. "I didn’t see any batches until the next day."

"Happened to me two weeks ago. Even tho I didn't cancel I couldn't even get in the gate. Customer wouldn't answer my calls or agents' calls," another gig worker wrote. "No batches for 24 hours!"

"No one was home. Her phone was off. I contacted support about the situation," another shopper posted. "[An agent] told me that now when you cancel an order Instacart reviews the reason for that cancellation and that's why I can't see any orders… How are they going to punish me like this for something that is not my fault?"


"Why wouldn't they tell us about this? That's a serious consequence," another Instacart shopper wrote. "Sometimes life happens and you have to cancel."

Instacart gig workers say that cutting gig workers around the country out of a day's income, which can be critical for keeping up with bills and basic expenses during the pandemic, is the latest in a series of unilateral decisions Instacart has made that contribute to increasingly precarious conditions. 

Instacart has several options in its app for returning orders without a penalty, such as notifying Instacart's shopper service about a minor ordering alcohol and then returning the order, and an in-app “Get emergency assistance” button that connects shoppers with 911. It also has an option for contactless "Leave at My Door" delivery, but some gig workers say they don't feel comfortable using this option unless the customer has agreed to it, and that these other options don't always resolve an issue. 

Workers claim that Instacart's service reps can take hours or even days to respond to their concerns, or doesn't account for other scenarios that arise. For example, workers say frozen foods like ice cream or hot items such as a rotisserie chicken shouldn't be left on a customers' doorstep for food safety reasons if the customer has not requested contactless delivery but isn't answering the door. In the state of California, refunds and returns on alcohol are illegal, unless it's spoiled or unfit for consumption. 


"This is really drastic," Vanessa Bain, an organizer with the Gig Workers Collective and an Instacart shopper in Menlo Park, California, told Motherboard. "I don’t know of any other gig economy company that has a measure as punitive as banning us for 24 hours for something beyond our control."

"If I have to cancel an order, I lose access to income as well as my flexibility to choose to work or not," she continued.  "Instacart makes that choice for me." 

Instacart's policy arrives during a period of colossal growth for the grocery delivery service, which has ballooned to 500,000 gig workers in 2020 and has become ubiquitous across the United States during the pandemic. The company's poised to make its initial public offering announcement early this year following in the footsteps of other gig economy giants, according to CNBC

Beyond wrong addresses and absent or unruly customers, Instacart shoppers (the company's term for its gig workers) encounter many other scenarios where they might have to cancel an order, including their own life circumstances: a flat tire, a broken car battery, a sick child. Instacart did not respond to a question about what options gig workers have when these scenarios arise. 

"A lot of gig workers plan on being able to work at a specific time when they've borrowed a car or requested childcare," Bain continued. "They've made a financial or time commitment. People use gig work like payday loans to pay a bill immediately. Let's be real, with this, they're restricting us so we don't have any power to determine when we work." 

Bain who began shopping for Instacart in 2015 told Motherboard that in Instacart's earlier years, they'd allow gig workers to donate or keep goods that could not be delivered if an order went awry, but Instacart has tightened its policies as it has expanded. 

"It’s a situation in which shoppers have a lot less agency and flexibility than they used to," Bain said. "In the past, if we had an iffy customer, we may have gambled on an order and accepted it, but nowadays, Instacart is leaving us stranded if anything goes wrong."