Work is busier than ever for Vanessa Bain, a full-time gig worker who lives in Menlo Park. Recently, while making deliveries for Instacart, she did her best to reduce her risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, sanitizing her hands often and wearing gloves.
Bain is a delivery person providing essential services to those who need food and other necessities, and is exempt from the shelter-at-home order that went into effect on Tuesday, March 17, in six Bay Area counties, including San Mateo and Santa Clara, to limit social interactions among residents for three weeks.
Bain works primarily for Instacart but also occasionally delivers for Caviar, Uber Eats and DoorDash. Her husband works for Caviar, Uber Eats and Postmates.
Instacart is an app that customers can use to order groceries or other goods and have them delivered.
Demand for delivery services in areas such as Seattle, the Bay Area and New York City has risen about twentyfold recently, she said.
As a shopper and deliverer on the ground, she said, this means that there are more orders placed at higher volumes than usual. Plus, the items many customers request are in limited supply — hand sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper and Tylenol — which can be frustrating for both shoppers and people making the orders.
"Our work has been incredibly busy and incredibly demanding," she said.
Because of the increased orders, Instacart and other delivery-based app businesses have begun to offer contract workers extra incentives to make deliveries. For the first time in a long time, the demand for shopping and delivery is greater than the supply, she said.
But these incentives have a dark side, said Bain, who's become known widely as a leader in the campaign for gig worker rights.
"It's luring us into a situation that's actually putting us in danger," she said.
People who work for delivery services on top of other jobs, who have other sources of income in their household, are more likely to weigh the risks of making deliveries in this area — a pandemic hotspot in the U.S. — and, wisely, stay inside instead, she said.
But, she said, "For people like myself who rely on this income pretty much exclusively to live, we don't have the option of not working for a week, or two or three weeks, until we feel safe to work again."
Many apps have also launched a "contactless" delivery option for customers that allow delivery workers to drop items off at the door without coming into close proximity with the customers.
But that doesn't fully eliminate a customer's risk of exposure to the new coronavirus, she said. The shopper and delivery workers are still coming into contact with the ordered items and with their surroundings.
"We're still touching all of their items, carts and (pin)pads," she said.
While a number of delivery-based app companies have issued statements that they will provide workers up to 14 days' pay in the case of a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, she said she wants more clarity about what that really means. What is 14 days' pay to a contract worker who isn't even guaranteed the minimum wage? And what about all the people who come down with symptoms that align with COVID-19 but aren't able to get tested?
*(Note: On March 17, Bain decided to follow the shelter-at-home order and stopped making deliveries.)
This profile originally appeared in the March 20 print edition of the Weekly and is part of our ongoing series, "Ordinary people, extraordinary times," capturing the stories of locals during the coronavirus crisis. Read more of their stories through the links below:
To view the series on one page, visit PaloAltoOnline.Atavist.com.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.