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Discount Diva: Instacart loses allure for workers

When Instacart first hit Western New York in August, it turned a lot of local, hardworking hustlers’ heads.

Good jobs can be hard to come by here. The company was looking for “independent contractors” to shop for groceries and deliver them to customers who ordered them through the Instacart app. People looking to supplement their income dove at the gig.

The chance to be your own boss, set your own hours and make a good wage plus tips and commission – what’s not to like?

At first, very little, according to the conversations I’ve had with shoppers.

The orders came fast and furious. Contractors felt a tremendous sense of urgency because the faster and better they worked to complete their orders, the higher their ratings would be and the more money they would make.

But, suddenly, the gravy train is not as juicy as it used to be.

As more independent contractors have signed on, orders have slowed to a trickle some days, shoppers said. Shoppers can sit in their cars for hours and not get a single order, or have their shifts cut early because there aren’t enough orders to go around. And no matter how fiercely shoppers defend their stats, shopping quickly and accurately, and trying to give great customer service, they keep getting dinged for things out of their control, they said.

Unethical customers, for example, routinely make what shoppers say are false complaints. They falsely mark items as missing, damaged or inaccurate in order to get their bills credited. Attempts to set the record straight are met with canned responses and often are not resolved, shoppers said.

Now, Instacart is taking away its $10 hourly guarantee for established shoppers. It was there in case customers didn’t place enough orders in this new market, but “thanks to the greater Buffalo community love for Instacart and boost in Shopper income, we’re able to remove the guarantees,” said Instacart spokeswoman Dacyl Armendariz. Shoppers are still paid commissions, tips and “bumps” for large or long-distance orders. But if orders don’t come, they can wait in their car for hours and not earn a cent.

Instacart also embedded in-store shoppers who fill orders for drivers to pick up. These “delivery-only” orders are less profitable for the rest of the Instacart contractors, they say, because they don’t include the usual $8.50 per hour plus 40 cents commission. Instead, drivers earn a flat rate of $7.25 per delivery (plus tips – if they come – and bumps).

One shopper, Brunhilda (not her real name), said she used to love shopping for Instacart. She enjoys carrying and unpacking groceries for elderly customers and those with disabilities. And it has been a great supplement to her income as a freelance web programmer. But earnings decreased from $415 to $265 in a single week, even though she’s working the same hours.

Now, thanks to a new scheduling policy, it looks like her Instacart days may be over. The policy gives those who work 30 hours or more per week first dibs at the coming week’s hours. There aren’t many (or sometimes any) left by the time the second round of shoppers gets a crack at them. “I guess it’s true what they say in the gig economy,” she said. “Don’t quit your day job.”

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