Labor actions taken in New York against Amazon, Instacart

It may be just a one-day thing, it may just be coincidence, it might not have happened if not for COVID-19. But the tensions inherent in the gig economy are coming to the forefront on March 30.

Two labor actions in New York –  one against Instacart, the other against Amazon – are underway today in the city with the largest incidence of COVID-19 actions. It’s difficult to call them “strikes.” Neither group of workers are unionized; there are no known negotiations; and in the case of the Amazon workers, the action is being referred to as a “walkout” with no clear indication of how long it may last. 

Instacart is more of an action of gig employees than Amazon, who are employees rather than contractors. Instacart is a startup with a valuation of more than $7 billion, and it sends its contractors, referred to as Shoppers, into supermarkets to buy groceries for its customers.

The action by the Instacart workers does appear to be a grassroots movement and was brought about through posts on the Medium platform. 

In its most recent Medium posting, it made several key demands:

  • Safety steps “at no cost to workers,” including a minimal amount of personal protection equipment – hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and sprays and soap.
  • What the organizers call “hazard pay” – $5 per order and defaulting the tip option in the Instacart app to 10%.
  • Extending an Instacart offer of two weeks’ of pay to workers who are quarantined or impacted some other way, such as a requirement for self-quarantine. That was to expire April 8, one month after it was first made by Instacart. The demand that it be extended beyond that date was met by the company, which now has set May 8 as the date for its expiration. 

In a March 27 post on its blog, Instacart extended the sick pay benefit to May 8. It also said it was introducing a bonus payment for workers. 

But it did not offer a flat $5 fee. Rather, it said it would be “determined based on the number of hours worked from March 15 through April 15 and will range from $25 to $200. “We will continue to communicate directly with in-store shoppers about ongoing support,” Instacart said. 

It also made changes in the tip default including setting the default to whatever the last tip that the customer using the app had made. 

The organizers, who operate under the title of the Gig Workers Collective, were not impressed. Promises by Instacart to provide more hand sanitizers, provided by a company it has contracted with to manufacture it, were welcome “(but) where were these efforts back when Shoppers first began asking for it?”

The tip change is “ridiculous because most previous customers would have tipped a different (lesser) amount back when things were normal.” The higher bonuses were not addressed in the Instacart Medium post on Monday, but the protesters were clear: “Hazard pay went completely unaddressed,” it said. “The average pay per order is well under $10.”

The Gig Workers Collective declared that the strike was still on even after the statement and changes announced by Instacart.

What makes measuring the success of these actions so difficult is the setup of the gig economy itself, and that’s maybe the point of the actions. There is no union; there is no central location that the workers come to and gather. There isn’t even a name attached to the Gig Workers Collective posts on Medium for a reporter to contact. The move does appear to have made Instacart to make some changes. But how many Shoppers will stay home as a result of the strike? That is a figure that may never be known.

At Amazon’s Staten Island facility, although there were reports that the walkout was being staged by the “union representing Amazon workers,” there is no such union. The facility has roughly 2,000 employees, according to a recent story about the fulfillment center published by AM New York. 

In the case of Staten Island, the action is receiving some degree of moral support from the
Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has provided updates. While a text message to the on-ground organizers on Staten Island was not returned, a spokeswoman for the union told FreightWaves it expected at least 100 workers to walk off the job at midday today.

A report on CNN identified the leader of the walkout as Christian Smalls, described as a processing assistant. Smalls said the incident of COVID-19 at the facility is far in excess of what Amazon has disclosed. 

“The plan is to cease all operations until the building is closed and sanitized,” Smalls was quoted by CNN as saying. “We’re not asking for much. We’re asking the building to be closed and sanitized, and for us to be paid [during that process].”

The walkout at Staten Island and the demands are in line with a lengthy petition on the Action Network. It calls on Amazon to not only close any of its facilities “at the first question of contamination,” but also to take steps far beyond what Amazon is likely to do, including extend fully-paid leave for people missing work due to school closures and the need to take care of their children.

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Amazon’s chief spokesman Jay Carney, who was Barack Obama’s press secretary, did not address the Staten Island action directly. But he said the company’s “first and primary concern is that our employees are protected,” saying the company has “instituted extraordinary measures of social distancing and extra cleaning.”