14 Dec 2021
Today, Kevin O’Connell shares his journey from pizza delivery to IT program manager at Instacart, where he almost didn’t listen to shoppers. And on December 15, shopper-organizers with Gig Workers Collective will be hosting a hybrid listening session to discuss ways to improve their work, live from Instacart HQ. After four years of making demands and winning concessions, GWC invites corporate workers to discuss what all workers can do for one another. Register for the listening session with Instacart shoppers here.
The Worker’s Perspective
By Kevin O’Connell
I’ve been on a long journey, trying to understand power in society
In a hurry? I know, life is like that. Register for a listening session with Instacart shopper-organizers at 1pm on December 15.
Now, here’s my story.
My upbringing in New England was pretty blue collar and work was typically labor intensive. I used to think unions were a solution to old problems, but working in the gig economy has shown me those problems still exist and worker power is more necessary than ever. Before finding my way into tech, I made and delivered pizzas. I unloaded grocery delivery trucks and built houses with my father. I had an interest in graphic design but couldn’t afford to go to art school. I dropped out of community college when the check I wrote bounced. But as soon as I realized I could work in an office and not outside in the elements every day I thought, How do I do that instead?
I scraped by for several years in New York and then San Francisco, hoping to find my purpose or path. During that time, I lived paycheck to paycheck, surviving on crackers and peanut butter often for a week at a time until the next payday. It was a stark contrast to the world of free snacks, catered lunches, and generous vacation policies I was immersed in just a few years later.
By 2015, I was used to commuting into San Francisco from Oakland every day for work when I discovered Instacart. It was so convenient: ordering groceries before leaving my office, timing it to ensure my order would be delivered around the same time as I got home, and eating dinner before I was ready to fall asleep completely changed my routine for the better. I felt so grateful for the convenience and the people that made it possible that I made sure to tip generously. After all, I knew all too well what it was like making deliveries and getting by mostly on tips.
So when I heard about Instacart siphoning tips from shoppers, I was angry. I stopped using the service, went back to shopping on a weeknight, and tried to be better at meal planning. At some point I had this notion that the issue with the tips was an error – that Instacart had fixed it, and things were back to normal. I suppose it happens all the time: a company makes a mistake and tries to make it right; everyone vows to take a lesson learned from the situation and moves on. So did I. At some point I started using the service again casually.
And then in 2019 I had an opportunity to work at Instacart. Imagine that. I obviously had some misgivings, but after a few conversations with important people in my life, it seemed like this opportunity was the right move for my career, and I accepted the job. My personal feelings were that the gig economy was problematic but that tech companies had usually aligned with my principles – wanting people to be seen as human, treated fairly, and be included in the decisions that affect them.
It’s been a struggle choosing between my career and my principles
My experience at Instacart was much like that of other tech companies. Free snacks, catered lunches, and good people who cared about social and economic issues and who wanted to do the right thing. What was different was that this was the first job in my entire career where I did not have to be on-site and could actually work from home.
And then the pandemic hit. Early on, an Instacart shopper protected only by a simple face covering delivered groceries to my home — that was the first time I realized how much risk this person was taking on just by showing up to work. I’m sure you’ve heard this talking point many times before, but Instacart – like all gig economy tech companies – classifies the people that make up the labor force of their business model as independent contractors. They’re not actual employees, so they don’t get benefits. If they get sick or die, that’s it. Nothing. Imagine being out in public every day, shopping for groceries and delivering them to people’s homes in those first weeks of the pandemic when we’d obsessively wash our hands, and not have any insurance provided by your employer if you contracted COVID.
Privately, I would ask some of my coworkers at Instacart: What are we doing for shoppers as independent contractors with no benefits or protection? Why do we call their jobs “essential” but not treat them that way? Is that why we’re contracting (hiring) hundreds of thousands of shoppers, to absorb the turnover and losses? But I never had the courage to demand those answers from the executives. I was afraid of being retaliated against by the company and I was carrying some heavy baggage from an experience with a previous manager and didn’t want to self-sabotage again.
I believed Instacart wasn’t doing enough for shoppers. During the early global shortage of PPE, I remember a coworker using government contacts to pull a few strings and get PPE to shoppers. It seemed an impossible accomplishment, and there was a feeling of pride and achievement that day, but that didn’t change benefits or protections for shoppers.
Then there was Prop 22, an effort to permanently remove employee rights for workers. Leadership told us the company’s line was “we don’t want big government telling us how to do business” and I went along thinking, that’s punk rock. But regulation and contracting are not the same; Instacart is holding power over shoppers who can’t choose their conditions. I wondered what long-time vocal shoppers said, what data have they analyzed?
One day my groceries came stuffed with pro-Prop 22 fliers about how shoppers were expecting it to grant flexibility. Spoiler, it doesn’t. And the people getting the short end of the stick on Prop 22 were the ones required to stuff misinformation in my groceries. When Prop 22 passed I was heartbroken, and even though Prop 22 was ruled unconstitutional by the CA Supreme Court in August, I still have a lot of guilt about it.
But it shouldn’t be about guilt; it should be about abolishing their bad practices. I’m honestly not sure if there is a world in which these giant gig companies don’t exist, but that doesn’t mean I wanted them to get away with this.
I’d heard about a grassroots group of Instacart shoppers organizing under the name the Gig Workers Collective. I read about how they proposed changes and even got public apologies from the company. It seems so obvious to be in dialogue with the people doing the work — talking face to face, looking at the data they collect, letting them run the company. They love their job and want it to be doable and livable.
Instacart colleagues, you have an opportunity to listen to the shoppers
I left Instacart in early 2021 to find better alignment of my interests with my responsibilities. Before leaving, I had started writing a song in solidarity with gig workers, and was now wondering what else I could do beyond self-expression and sharing links on social media. I was inspired by the tactic of donation matching by these tech companies and was looking for a non-profit I could donate proceeds to when I came across GWC again.
My first immediate thought was, “Oh fuck, it’s the ‘open letter to the CEO’ people,” the ones that annoyed some of my coworkers. But when I removed the guilt about my long winding journey, got beyond us-versus-them thinking, and examined worker interests rationally, it made sense. I contacted GWC when my band released the song and raised a modest amount of money for them. After a few conversations, I found deep similarities to my experiences working in tech: good people who care about social and economic justice trying to do the right thing. They connected me to the Tech Workers Coalition, who build alliances between all workers in tech, and engineer Eddy Hernandez who had a similar journey leaving Uber.
Now we’re hosting what tech CEOs love to call “a fireside chat,” but this is more of a listening session: an opportunity for Instacart corporate workers to hear directly from shoppers. Corporate employees can learn a lot from shoppers in their hopes of reimagining the company. I’m not advocating for burning it all down, as there is still opportunity for people to make money with flexibility, but that promise has not been delivered.
What can you do? Right now? Tipping shoppers generously is a good start, but there’s more. You can join this listening session with GWC. Register to join the listening session to hear directly from shoppers. If you read this after 1pm on December 15, join the ally list as a community supporter.
Thank you to Willy Solis and Vanessa Bain of GWC for talking with me — I wish I’d reached out earlier. Thank you also to Eddy Hernandez for hearing my story and sharing his too, and folks from the TWC newsletter collective for editing this story. And many thanks to my former Instacart colleagues for considering listening to GWC this week; RSVP here to listen in.