Instacart shoppers face unforgiving metrics: ‘It’s a very easy job to lose’

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Five days a week, Ryan Hartson scours the picked-over aisles of Mariano’s Fresh Market in Chicago to fill grocery delivery orders for Instacart. He clocks in for his shift exactly on the hour — if he’s even five minutes late, he’ll receive a “reliability incident.” Within four minutes he must accept any incoming orders. Any longer and he’ll be kicked off the shift and risk getting an incident. Three incidents in a week and he’s at risk of termination.

“It’s a very easy job to lose,” Hartson said.

To avoid missing orders, Hartson schedules his bathroom visits — after four hours of work, the app notifies him that he has earned a 10-minute paid break. Meanwhile, Instacart managers use the app to see if he’s running behind on his orders. The app also tracks Hartson’s customer communications, automatically searching for specific terms to ensure he’s using Instacart’s preferred script. If he doesn’t, his metrics will take another hit.

Metrics define the experience of Instacart’s part-time workforce. Measured weekly for employees such as Harston is the number of reliability incidents; the number of seconds it takes to pick each item; and the percentage of customers with whom they correspond. Some former and current employees say 5% to 20% of shoppers in a store can be fired weekly.

Even in the data-driven tech world, Instacart stands out for its metrics-oriented culture, interviews with more than 30 current and former employees as well as documents and recordings reviewed by The Times reveal. This drive toward productivity helps Instacart’s profit margins, a vital step for a start-up that recorded its first-ever monthly profit in April, as the coronavirus pandemic heightened demand for grocery delivery.

Instacart says it has eased enforcement of certain metrics during the pandemic, but shoppers say company policies often ignore the realities of the job, leaving them in constant fear of termination over things out of their control.

Instacart says it evaluates shoppers on more than just speed and efficiency. Natalia Montalvo, the company‘s director of shopper engagement and communications, said the in-store shopper role was built on the premise of “flexibility, efficiency, innovation and customer service.”

“Efficiency and fulfillment of customer orders in a timely manner is important,” Montalvo said, “but it’s just one of many factors we look at in our overall business health and growth relative to other contributors” such as revenue derived from advertising for and partnering with consumer brands.

Read the complete article here.

In major ruling, San Diego judge says Instacart will flunk AB 5 contractor test

From today’s San Diego Union-Tribune:

A San Diego Superior Court judge has ruled that Instacart is likely misclassifying some of its workers as contractors — when the law requires they be classified as employees — marking a notable step toward enforcement of the controversial new state law known as AB 5.

But the ruling came with a healthy dose of skepticism from the judge over the “wisdom” of the law itself.

Judge Timothy Taylor issued an injunction Feb. 18 against Instacart in San Diego Superior Court, essentially warning the San Francisco company that it’s failing to comply with the state’s labor laws. Instacart disagrees with the ruling, and plans to file an appeal, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Instacart, which operates nationally and has a presence in San Diego, is an app that allows customers to place grocery orders online, which are then purchased and delivered by gig workers called “shoppers.” The labor law case, filed by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott in September, takes issue with how the grocery delivery company classifies its shoppers.

The suit alleges that Instacart shoppers do not qualify as independent contractors under a 2018 California Supreme Court decision (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court). It’s the Dynamex case that spurred Assembly Bill 5 to move its way through the state legislature last year, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

According to Judge Taylor, the law makes it clear that Instacart is in violation, calling California state policy “unapologetically pro-employee.”

“While there is room for debate on the wisdom of this policy, and while other states have chosen another course, it is noteworthy that all three branches of California have now spoken on this issue,” Taylor wrote in a court filing dated Feb. 18. “The Supreme Court announced Dynamex two years ago. The decision gave rise to a long debate in the legal press and in the Legislature. The Legislature passed AB 5 last fall. The Governor signed it. To put it in the vernacular, the handwriting is on the wall.”

Read the complete article here.

The Gig Economy Is Coming for Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

A few years ago, Adalberto Martín began to see some troubling changes at work. As a veteran member of the room service staff at Marriott’s W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, he was an expert in delivering carefully assembled trays of food and drink to hungry guests. But the number of orders had sharply decreased. What was once 50 glasses of orange juice every morning had dwindled to 10, and Mr. Martín’s tip income fell accordingly. At lunchtime, he seemed to make more deliveries of plates and silverware than actual food.

Room service, as we imagine it in the movies, with white tablecloths and silver cloches, has long been in decline, even at the fanciest hotels. But Mr. Martín attributes his loss of earnings to the proliferation of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates, successors of online ordering services like Seamless. Now he wonders if soon he’ll be out of a job altogether. “We’re always worrying and concerned when we see other hotels nearby closing room service,” Mr. Martín told me. “It’s just a matter of time.”

His co-workers at the W and staff members at other hotels report similar trends: The doormen and bellmen who once summoned cabs for guests, and were tipped in return, now watch lines of Ubers and Lyfts coil in front of the lobby doors, while concierges have had their work outsourced to iPad consoles. Some hotels offer tablets in every room preloaded with food-delivery apps, and give guests vouchers for Uber and Lyft rides. In the microcosm of the hotel, the app economy has expanded choices for some (the guests) and shrunk options for others (the workers).

These currents in hospitality represent a subtle, sneaky form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy. They’re not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but rather smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” (a portmanteau of “co-worker” and “robot”) chipping away at the careers of full-time and in some cases unionized employees.

In the beginning of the gig economy, people most feared one-to-one job loss: An Uber driver comes in, a taxi driver goes out. And taxi drivers have indeed lost their livelihoods — and taken their own lives. Yet many app workers are only part-time, driving or TaskRabbit-ing to supplement their wages in a traditional job. App companies, for their part, deny that even full-timers are employees, perpetuating the fantasy that gig workers are solo entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that reduces everything to a series of app-enabled transactions, and calls it work, leaving what’s left of the welfare state to fill in the rest.

Aaron Benanav, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, explains that this process of “de-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is being used to replace skilled workers with less skilled, or continuing a process that’s happening all over the world of ‘disguised employment,’ where you bring in independent contractors to replace employees,” he said. “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees.

Read the complete article here.

Spending Is as Easy as Pushing a Button. The Hard Part? Keeping Track.

From today’s New York Times:

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Tara Siegel Bernard, a personal finance reporter, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for tracking budgets?

This may sound strange coming from a personal finance reporter, but I’m not a big fan of traditional budgets — I don’t think they work. I try to keep my own spending in check by taking the reverse approach. Instead of tracking every dollar, I focus on what we need to save for: retirement, college or some other goal. After you’ve automated your savings goals and created a bit of a cushion for emergencies, you’re freer to spend without thinking too hard or feeling too guilty. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s better than a failed budget.

That method won’t necessarily work in all situations, especially if you need to tackle debt or establish a stricter spending plan in retirement. And everyone can benefit from tracking personal spending, even if you do it only for a few months or check in only every quarter.

Mint has been around for a while, but it is still a solid way to take stock of where all of your money is going and whether your net worth is moving in the right direction. It also allows you to create a budget, and alerts you when you’ve spent too much. I use it infrequently, and there’s usually at least one kink I need to work out whenever I log in; most recently, it counted all of my retirement accounts twice, which was kind of cruel.

Which basic tools would you recommend for people to increase their savings and investments?

It’s not so much a tool but a technology: automation. After you’ve settled on a low-cost investment provider such as Vanguard, automation is the surest way to set yourself up for success. Automate as much as you can — your Roth I.R.A. contributions, your kids’ 529 college savings accounts. If you have an employer-provided retirement plan like a 401(k), see if it will allow you to automatically increase the percentage you’re saving each year. If not, set a date in your electronic calendar to remind you to revisit all of those amounts annually.

I also like the little revolution that the roboadvisers have started. They lean heavily on technology to help invest and manage your money, though more of them are increasingly integrating human advisers. Betterment and Wealthfront have free tools that will let you play with various goals and savings amounts to see how long it will take you to save what you need.

Read the complete article here.