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Shopping for Strangers on Instacart, Relying on Friends

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Rachael Trump started delivering for Instacart in early February, when the U.S. was counting its first confirmed COVID-19 cases and weeks before Humboldt County and the state of California instituted shelter-in-place orders.

"I had been looking for several months for something," Trump says. She needed to supplement her income with something flexible that would fit around her duties at South Bay School District, where she's worked for 13 years and now serves as student and staff support. She calls running shopping errands for strangers "a perfect job" so far, despite a lack of safety equipment from the company that's left her to rely on her own personal network to find it. In fact, she's found her Instacart trips out of the house to be a relief from quarantine monotony and a source of connection with her family and her clients — even if she never sees their faces.

A week ago, Trump was making as many as eight runs a day as late as 8 p.m., though it's slowed to about three per day this week. The Instacart app on her phone lets her know when a "batch" is available to take on. It tells her how far away the delivery is and what it will pay, the latter determined by a byzantine formula combining weight, distance and time of day.

Those who've been grocery shopping as part of their unpaid domestic labor may wonder what the going rate is for Instacart's reported 200,000 independent contractors. It's tricky. "One batch can be $10 for 20 things, another might be $40 for four things," Trump says, adding some grocery lists with some 70 items can take three hours to finish — especially with so many things out of stock, necessitating a volley of texts with the customer about replacement items or whether non-organic produce will suffice — and yet her fee might only come out to $25. The tips, paid through the app or in cash, run "anywhere from a dollar or two to $30," she says. "It has seemed like it's been higher tips since people have been stuck inside."

And stuck inside is where Trump doesn't want to be. "It's nice, I feel like it's active ... you're moving," she says. "Definitely helps with the depression of being stuck in the house ... and you feel like you're helping people, especially the older people who can't get out of the house." She's been shopping and doing errands off the clock for an older family friend, too. And she sometimes picks up flowers to leave on another friend's doorstep. Even though her interactions with both friends and clients frequently amount to unseen deliveries, Trump, who tries to learn the names of every child at her school job, says it helps her stay connected to people.

While schools are closed, she's doing some remote training and keeping in touch with students. Trump volunteered to write postcards to every kid in the elementary and charter middle school that she and both her daughters attended. She's up to 130 postcards, writing personalized greetings and fun facts for each one, trying not to repeat, especially among siblings. "I really enjoy being with the kids and doing this I feel like is at least something and it's a way to tell 'em, 'Hey, I'm still thinking about you.'"

Trump says she feels like this has been a good opportunity for her daughter, too. After coming home from Chico State University when it closed under shelter in place, her eldest started helping out with deliveries and later signed up as an Instacart shopper on her own. Even Trump's husband, Chad, who also works at South Bay School District, has started delivering for the service in his off hours. "It's actually been really fun to be able to work with my daughter and my husband," she says. They're together, she says, out and about and helping people.

There's no getting around that Instacart is a way to outsource the risk of COVID-19 contamination, with shoppers taking on waiting in social distance-compliant lines and coming into contact with store staff and surfaces in public spaces. Still, Trump says the stores she visits have been doing a good job sanitizing door handles and conveyer belts. And she kept her phone in an easily wiped down plastic sleeve when customers' electronic signatures were still required, a practice Instacart has now abandoned. Costco lets Instacart shoppers skip the line and shop at special hours, and customers receiving their orders either elect to have them left on the porch or keep their distance fairly well. "I feel pretty good. We have our masks that we wear," she says. "We have gloves and tons of sanitizer."

Those she came by with help from friends, not Instacart.

"I was getting low on what I had and I was getting a little panicky," Trump says, adding she ordered a box of gloves for $22 from Amazon but went through it in a week. A friend who was working in a hardware store found her a supply and Trump and her daughter started making their own masks. Another friend tipped her off to a sanitizer source and, once her order came in, Trump shared her stash with her friend from the hardware store. Trump shared some of the gloves with the family friend she picks up groceries for, too. Her safety, like much of her life, is tied to a network of friends and neighbors who help one another.

On April 2, Instacart announced it would be supplying shoppers with free health and safety kits: gloves, face masks and forehead thermometers. But when Trump tried to get hers last week, they were already out. By April 16, she had received plenty of information from the company about social distancing and safety, but still no kit.

On March 27, the Gig Workers Collective announced a strike and called for personal protection equipment, as well as hazard and sick pay, for Instacart workers diagnosed with COVID-19. But the New York Times reports the company says it saw "absolutely no impact."

"I have heard about that," says Trump, but she's not in contact with other shoppers outside her family beyond recognizing them in the aisles at Costco and Safeway. (That isolation in itself is enough to hamper a strike.) For now, she's content to keep taking batches as they come. She's holding off on alcohol orders and the hassle of checking IDs, despite hearing about higher tips, but she's considering training to make pharmacy runs.

"Everybody's been pretty great," Trump says of the strangers she brings food and supplies every day. "A lot of them are really grateful to have somebody who can go and get stuff for them." And customers can relax about her judging their orders, no matter how indulgent or personal the items. "I actually find it fascinating. A couple orders had things that I was like, 'I never even knew they had this,'" she says with a laugh. "I worry about that with my own cart when somebody sees what I'm buying but when I'm picking up for other people, I don't really care."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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