WASHINGTON — You have to protect the things you can, so when the cashier at the Harris Teeter checkout counter asked Matt Gillette if he wanted anything double-bagged, he considered the stakes.
“I’m really just worried about the eggs,” he said, before carefully wrapping a second bag around a carton.
The eggs were not his. Gillette, 36, makes shopping runs for customers who place orders via Instacart from the safety of their homes. On this day, Gillette’s cart held provisions for three households. He was worrying about their eggs so they didn’t have to.
He is part of a corps of workers who have become essential in the coronavirus pandemic: those who are willing to risk venturing out to places that many people are trying to avoid.
Gillette was dressed for the job in jeans and a T-shirt. No mask, no gloves. He had hand sanitizer and wipes in his car, for disinfecting after the fact.
“As an HIV-positive person, it does worry me a little bit,” he said. But, he added, “I am more cognizant of the fact that I’ve got to survive.” In this case, survival didn’t just mean avoiding infection; it meant continuing to work so he could buy groceries of his own.
The eggs would make it safely into Gillette’s car and then safely en route to their destinations: a large apartment building, a penthouse with a private elevator operated by a concierge, and an upscale home where a voice would ask him if he would mind leaving the groceries on the other side of the door.
For years there has been talk of a divided America: those who have thrived in the modern economy and those who have been hurt by it. The wrath of a highly contagious coronavirus has made that dividing line bluntly literal: It’s about two inches thick, and it locks.
Gillette spent the past two years trying to make the gig economy work for him. He’s driven people around via Lyft, done their handiwork via TaskRabbit. It hasn’t been much of a living. He’s been on the verge of homelessness, crashing with friends and asking others to take in his beloved dog, a Labrador mix named Nitro. He’s currently living with a friend, kicking in rent when he can. Things had been looking up in early March, when he was in line to interview for a management position with a local parking company. Then came the novel coronavirus, the closures, the stay-at-home orders.
Health-care professionals warned that the coronavirus would not discriminate between rich and poor, black and white, insured and uninsured. But there is emerging evidence that covid-19 is killing a disproportionate number of African Americans, and the virus’s broader economic fallout is not egalitarian. Salaried workers fortunate enough to be able to work remotely have a couple of safety nets: the paychecks that are still being deposited into their bank accounts, and the health-care plans that will protect them financially if they do fall sick — a scenario made less likely by the privilege of teleworking. An Axios/Ipsos survey released last week found that 48 percent of upper-middle-class Americans are working from home, compared with 11 percent of their lower-middle-class counterparts. For the latter group, it’s seldom an option.
When Gillette signed up to deliver groceries for Instacart, he joined a small army of colleagues in the area he may never meet. You can spot them by their uniform, a lanyard around the neck, sometimes a T-shirt: green for Instacart, blue for Amazon Prime Now. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) And by the way they constantly stare at product details on smartphones as they attempt to do other people’s grocery shopping for them.
They are folks like Moe Ali, 27, a tile salesman who can’t sell tiles during a quarantine but still needs to provide for himself and his wife, who is a student. Angelique Thornton, a 24-year-old with thyroid cancer who lives with her elderly grandparents. (“I’m extremely nervous,” Thornton says.) Nina Makel, 32, a mother of four who estimates she has been working 60 hours a week lately — mostly at a Whole Foods that has more shoppers-for-hire than regular customers these days. And Phyllis Greenhow, a woman in her 50s whose immune system is compromised because of kidney problems and a recent heart attack. She is giving half of her Instacart earnings to a friend who got laid off from a pizza parlor. Greenhow’s adult daughter wants her to stop but is not winning that argument. “I am one of these people that believes God has me,” Greenhow explains.
Some of Gillette’s new colleagues joined a one-day nationwide strike of people working for Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods last week. The workers, who do deliveries or fulfill orders in warehouses, demanded increased hazard pay and safer conditions. The strike succeeded in garnering national attention and some concessions from the companies, though many workers say they still don’t feel safe.
Still, for folks who need work, it’s one of the few opportunities available right now. Instacart says its orders have increased 300% in recent weeks, compared to last year at this time. And in the last week alone, 50,000 new people signed up to be Instacart shoppers. Some of them, surely, are among the more than 17 million Americans who have filed for unemployment in the past month.
Gillette did his first Instacart run the day after the strike. He was a “a little overzealous” his first time out, he said, trying to fulfill multiple orders in a store he didn’t know well. Instacart calculates how long it thinks its shoppers should take to complete the shopping based on historical data it tracks through the app. Gillette took an average of 153 seconds per item that first day; the app suggested he step it up and “use these metrics to track your progress as a shopper,” a reminder that some of his pay would depend on speed.
“Our fastest shoppers earn the most,” Gillette read as he looked at the app. “Learning to shop faster will help you fulfill more orders.”
On his second day, he went to a familiar Harris Teeter to fulfill a single order. At first the store’s WiFi wasn’t working well on his phone, which made it impossible to load the customer’s shopping list. Eventually the 27-item list loaded and Gillette, in a black vest and a gold-sequined baseball cap turned backward (still no gloves or mask), steered a shopping cart with a defective wheel through the produce section. Furrowing his brow, he examined a container of blueberries to see if it matched the brand specified by his customer.
Gillette spent years working in restaurants and cares too much about food to prize speed over quality. When he saw that the button mushrooms the customer ordered were out of stock, he dictated a text message recommending that the customer consider replacing the item with oyster mushrooms instead. “They’re $9.99 a pound,” he said. “And worth every penny.”
Every replacement required a consultation. Every unfulfilled item could cost Gillette a bit of tip money. The customer would take the oyster mushrooms, but the shortages kept coming and the responses to his questions slowed. No regular ground beef. Could he grab the grass-fed kind? Chicken drums were gone. Did they want wings instead? No answer.
Time was ticking, so Gillette moved on: to a soup aisle that was picked over, a pasta shelf that was nearly bare and a stretch of emptiness where the bread used to be. He stuck his head down the toilet paper aisle — “Nope!” Compromise would have to be the order of the day. After more than an hour in the store, he wheeled to the checkout area.
With travel time, the job took two hours to complete and paid just under $40. Gillette says most of his customers have been grateful and generous — one even handed him $20 in a zip-top bag. When customers request that Gillette leave their bags at the door, he understands. People are supposed to keep their distance.
Shopping for others won’t net Gillette a fortune, but it’s the kind of money that could help him stay afloat — if not indoors — while the pandemic runs its course.
And afterward? Maybe the TaskRabbit work will return. Maybe the position with the parking company will open back up. Maybe he can rent his own place and get Nitro back.
Gillette’s voice catches. Being apart from his dog, Gillette says, is “hard every day.”
Lately, everything has seemed hard every day.
But the nationwide strike by his fellow Instacart shoppers did bear some fruit: Gillette was notified late last week that Instacart would soon be sending him a personal safety kit with a thermometer, hand sanitizer and a reusable mask.
By Monday, he had already started wearing one. You have to protect the things you can.
“I hate things on my face,” he said. “But I would rather be alive.”