Dear Instacart: I'll use you again when you treat workers better

I started using your service when the pandemic arrived in my community last March. Since then, I've called on Instacart to deliver food staples to my door, bring me the ingredients for my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, provide Halloween decorations and stocking stuffers, and, thanks to your policy of apparently not caring how many new addresses I add, send groceries to other families in need.

Like millions of Americans, I've come to rely on Instacart not just for convenience, but for my own safety. But my ability to protect my own health depends on the willingness of Instacart shoppers to risk theirs to do their jobs. Acknowledging that, I make an effort to treat the people who shop for my family with respect and to tip them generously. It infuriates me that the company that employs them refuses to join me in recognizing and compensating their sacrifices as essential workers.

Instacart began to make a profit for the first time in April 2020, after having lost $300 million in 2019. The value of the company has doubled. Your business owes its success to the tragedy of a global pandemic. Of course, in every crisis there will be business models better positioned than others to meet customers' unique needs. But with good fortune born in troubled times should come a sense of humility and a recognition that none of this would be possible without shoppers willing to put themselves and their own families at risk to go to work every day.

That's why I was disappointed and angry to read that you have fired one-fifth of your direct employees who are in-store shoppers, including all of your employees who had recently unionized. While your unionized workforce was small – thanks to your aggressive campaign to persuade workers not to vote for a union – laying off every last one of them sends a powerful signal to other employees not to organize, or else. Moreover, the broader shift away from direct employees and toward gig workers will make it harder for the rest of your workers to organize and demand pay and benefits commensurate with the hazards of the job. I'm sure that's the point, since business is booming and layoffs, especially of this magnitude, aren't remotely necessary for your company to stay in business.

None of this is lost on customers like me, who understand that we are only able to stay at home, protecting ourselves and others, because of the sacrifices frontline essential workers, like your shoppers, have made. We don't use your service to pad your bottom line or because your website and app are user-friendly (they aren't). We use Instacart because of its workers – the people who spend time in grocery stores so we don't have to.

It's always difficult to know if boycotting a company is the right move, since it hurts employees as well as management. But I can no longer in good conscience spend money with you when it will be used to accumulate greater profits during a pandemic while your workers are underpaid, denied the ability to organize for better pay and working conditions, and laid off with as little as $250 in severance while your valuation continues to climb toward your initial public offering. My family will find alternatives that still limit the community spread of COVID, and we'll continue tipping delivery workers generously – extravagantly, when we can – until all frontline essential workers receive pay that truly reflects their value to society and the risks they take.

This isn't even a case of profits over people; in today's economy, a company like yours can profit and still invest in your people. You have the opportunity to be a model of corporate responsibility, instead of another trending start-up fueling the gig economy's race to the bottom. Do the right thing: reinstate the laid-off shoppers, move toward more direct employees and away from independent contractors, and stay out of the way of workers seeking to organize. Until then, we won't be using Instacart.

Katharine P. Eastvold lives and works in Springfield and attends Loyola University Chicago School of Law (online, for now). Her pursuits include hiking, volunteering and keeping busy at all times. She resides with her four children, fiance and assorted animals.

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