After clocking in for five hours on the grocery delivery platform Instacart on Thanksgiving, Tamila Dorton switched off the app and sat down with her two kids to a turkey dinner donated by a local church.
“I just didn’t make enough to buy dinner,” Dorton, a 38-year-old single mother in Shawnee, a Kansas City suburb, told Motherboard. Bills are so tight this year following several changes to Instacart’s pay algorithm that Dorton also reached out to a charity for Christmas gifts for her kids.
When she initially joined Instacart a year ago, Dorton says she could earn up to $800 during a 40 hour workweek picking up groceries at Costco and Sam’s Club and dropping them off at customers’ homes. But in recent months, her weekly income has fallen to $400 for 60 hours of grocery shopping. “I made more delivering pizza and waiting tables,” Dorton told Motherboard. “People always say ‘get another job,’ but it’s not easy finding another job when you’re a single mother.”
Things aren’t just grim for Instacart workers this winter. Across the United States, gig workers on apps including Uber, Lyft, and UberEats saw precipitous drops in their income this year, as companies slash wages in anticipation of initial public offerings on the stock market. The companies have also flooded the markets with new workers, making “gig” assignments harder to come by. (Both Uber and Lyft made their stock market debuts this year, while Instacart’s CEO hinted earlier this year that the company, which has been valued at $7.8 billion, plans to file for an IPO.)
The changes have left gig workers struggling to pay for food, utilities, and medical bills.
“Christmas this year will be very minimal. We’re paycheck to paycheck,” Sarah Polito, a 27 year old Instacart shopper, who lives in a remote village 40 miles east of Rochester, New York, told Motherboard. “I worked on Thanksgiving and I’ll be working up to Christmas. It’s definitely stressful. We’re supposed to have flexibility with this job, but at this point, we’re working all the time because we have to.”
Dan, a former social worker who delivers food for UberEats, DoorDash, and Caviar in Chicago and requested a pseudonym for this story, signed up for the food delivery apps last year. Delivering food has allowed him the flexibility he needs in his schedule needs to make frequent doctor’s visits for his HIV condition. But now he’s on food stamps.
“The week of November 11, I worked 24 hours and made $189 before the costs of gas,” he told Motherboard. “If customers knew the behind-the-scenes of these apps, they wouldn’t support it. It’s extortion.”
Most years, Dan flies home to New York for Christmas, but this year he says he’ll be working throughout the holidays. “I have a big stack of bills. My electricity has been threatened to be turned off. I can’t afford my dog’s medication. My dad’s in the hospital and I’d love to see him, but I don’t have the luxury. It’s having an effect, too, on my relationship with my partner.”
Experts say that apps like Uber and Lyft have strategically deployed a bait-and-switch model, luring in workers—particularly single mothers and immigrants—with lucrative pay and flexible working hours. Once workers have shaped their daily lives around the apps, companies, beholden to venture capitalists, manipulate pay models to lower costs and flood local markets with competition. Instcart tripled its workforce from roughly 40,000 to 130,000 over the past year. This means workers must compete for delivery orders.
“I fell for the launching scheme. At first, I was doing much better than now,” Dan said. “But then these apps started wheeling and dealing and splicing and dicing.”
The cuts have been devastating. In March, Uber slashed driver pay from 80 to 60 cents a mile in Los Angeles—leading hundreds of drivers to coordinate a strike. Postmates cut pay by roughly 30 percent in May. And after a three day national strike in early November, Instacart axed its ‘quality’ bonus for delivery couriers, which can amount to 40 percent of pay on an order. Worse still, as independent contractors, minimum wage laws don’t apply to gig workers, who also don’t receive overtime pay, worker’s compensation, or healthcare benefits, and cannot form unions.
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Tara McNeil, a single mother who delivers for Postmates and Doordash in Oklahoma City, works around 15 hours a week, which allows her to drive her son to and from school and attend after-school events. But the pay cuts have forced her to make some difficult choices. She can longer take longer make monthly outings to the movies, and she’s had to tell her son that he can no longer attend after-school soccer and other extracurricular activities, because she can’t afford the gas. She used to budget $150 a week for groceries, but now it’s down to $100.
“Last week I made $58 for 13 hours of work,” she told Motherboard in early December. “I had to reach out to the Red Cross to get a couple gifts for Christmas.”
Most of her customers, she says, are young professionals, and it’s been difficult dropping off groceries at their homes and seeing their living rooms lit up with holiday decorations. “I couldn’t afford a Christmas tree or lights. But here I am driving around and all these people have their lights up. I want these apps to know they got to do better. I’m a quality person, and I’m not even making minimum wage.”