Vanessa Bain, an organizer and nonprofit leader who lives in Menlo Park, knows she probably isn't alone in calling the pandemic "the hardest period of protracted, long precarity and uncertainty in my life."
As an advocate for essential workers, a mom and one of eight family members stuck mainly at home together over the past year, figuring out how to juggle the demands of advocating for gig workers, protecting her family and taking care of herself has been a struggle, she explained in a recent interview.
"It just feels like a constant struggle to really achieve any kind of balance. And at times, I feel like I just have to throw my hands up and be like, 'OK, there's no such thing as balance,'" she said.
The past year has been a challenging one for gig workers in particular, a fact Bain, as an advocate for their interests, has felt acutely.
Bain has worked for the gig grocery shopping and delivery company Instacart and has been a longtime organizer on behalf of its workers. Because she shares a home with seniors who are vulnerable to developing complications from COVID-19, though, she has abstained from making food deliveries for most of the past year.
Instead, she transitioned to working full-time as the executive director of the gig worker organizing nonprofit Gig Workers Collective. Because funding for the nonprofit is so limited, she isn't taking a paycheck there yet, she said.
The hardest moment of the past year came at the onset of the pandemic, she said. When the shelter-in-place orders came out in California, Instacart announced it planned to hire 300,000 new workers. At first, being declared an essential worker felt like a privilege — it meant being able to work while many, many others weren't.
But "what became very clear very quickly is that essential is just a useful euphemism for disposable," she said.
"None of us had access to (personal protective equipment); none of us had access to, like, disinfectants or sanitizers or anything like that," Bain explained.
So she and her colleagues helped to organize a nationwide walkout for Instacart shoppers.
Even as the workforce of gig-work grocery shoppers doubled or even tripled over the past year, she said, Instacart and other companies providing essential services failed to support their workers.
"There's a lot of folks that have showed up day in, day out throughout the pandemic to do work in an essential capacity. And I think all of our companies have really failed to properly protect us and make us feel safe and comfortable in our workplaces, let alone adequately compensate us for the risks that we're taking."
Another blow to gig worker protections that Bain found personally devastating was when California voters passed Proposition 22 in November.
The proposition, heavily funded by gig companies, exempts app-based transportation and delivery companies from having to comply with state legislation Assembly Bill 5 and lets them continue to classify their workers as independent contractors rather than employees. The exemption means those companies do not have to provide traditional employee benefits like overtime, paid sick time or health care to their gig workers.
Its passage, she said, was disheartening because the legislation has clearly been profitable for those companies and its impacts won't affect just the gig economy but also properly classified employees.
Still, she's not giving up.
"There are a lot of us that are committed to seeing this through and ensuring that this isn't a model that spreads to other places, and doesn't get enshrined or codified into law at the national level as well," she said.
Bain has been doing all of her organizing work while sharing a home with her husband, their 12-year-old daughter, her sister, her sister's partner, and a grandmother, grandfather and great-grandmother — all of whom have had to learn to share a single bathroom and kitchen over the past year.
While it's been difficult at times, being able to live with family has also provided a sense of financial security, since they are able to share bills, she said.
"I feel really grateful for having this multi-generational household where people have pooled resources and energy and time together to take care of one another in a way that a lot of people don't have," she said.
But that proximity to loved ones has also come with worry about protecting them.
For instance, she worries about how sheltering in place is affecting her child.
"I will say I really miss my daughter's childhood. ... I feel in a lot of ways she's been really stripped of it through this pandemic," she said. "She's an only kid and she's living with seven adults. I can't imagine what that's like on just a social and emotional level for her."
So far, she said, they've all stayed safe and healthy, but for her it meant giving up app-based grocery shopping work outside the home — even while she's had to take on some of those risks anyway as her family's primary grocery shopper.
"I feel the onus of responsibility to keep my family safe and protected, which has definitely changed the way that I would normally live my life," she said.
On a personal level, she added, as someone who worked outside of the home pre-pandemic, she said, it has taken some adjustment for grandparents and her child to understand that just because she's home doesn't mean she's available to play or help out.
Having blurrier boundaries between her work and home lives has also made it harder to feel that she's fully succeeding in one realm or the other, she said.
"I still continue to feel like I'm constantly failing everybody around me, everything I do, be it work or my personal life, because I feel like there aren't the same kind of parameters around how you allocate time," she said.
"I've actually felt a pretty tremendous amount of guilt around the idea that I can't dedicate myself fully to work or home right now. I'm constantly split between the two," she said. "And it ... has definitely led to some very real changes in my mental health and well-being."
Looking back, she said, one lesson she's learned from her pandemic experience is the importance of self-care. It didn't come easily, and it took seeing other people she loves struggle with similar challenges for her to take the matter seriously, she said.
"You're not really any good to anybody else if you're not feeling OK or feeling capable of doing things," she said. "I've had to hold myself accountable more to my well-being."
"I feel like I'm advocating for myself more at this point than I have in a long time," she added. "And I think that's actually something that, while it's challenging, is long overdue."