Illustration for article titled In a Flood of New Demand, Shipt Is Letting Gig Workers Drown

Illustration: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo Media Group

The coronavirus pandemic has put many low-wage workers at increased risk, gig workers especially. For Shipt customers, it no doubt came as a relief that the Target-owned platform had “secured protective equipment for all Shipt Shoppers” and was “showing [its] appreciation with increased pay (30% on average),” according to an email signed by the service’s CEO, Kelly Caruso. Workers themselves, however, tell a different story.

According to eight Shipt gig workers from around the U.S., the delivery company’s infrastructure is failing beneath the crushing demand of sheltered-in-place customers—all while pay is allegedly getting worse. Shipt itself went to extraordinary lengths to discredit their assertions, including calling worker claims “fabricated” and revealing a shopper’s personal information in a call with Gizmodo.

The most common complaint among the shoppers we spoke to was that Shipt has become virtually unreachable. A canceled or fraudulent order, or a payment processing failure on the part of Shipt’s prepaid shopper cards all require a call—and the wait for those calls to resolve has apparently risen to as much as four days. Most said they waited two to three hours. “I called them at 10 o’clock. I put them on speaker and went about my business. They finally answered sometime after 12,” Veronica, a shopper in the southern U.S., said of a recent attempt to resolve an order. After more than two hours on hold, she was instructed to return the item to Target, even though Target (which bought Shipt in 2017) has paused in-store returns as part of its covid-19 response plan.

According to one Florida-based shopper, who requested anonymity, “They eventually stopped letting calls go through. If you tried to call [shopper support], there was a recorded message saying due to the high volume of calls we’re not taking any more calls.” She said she was instructed to text the relevant information to a Shipt number. Of the five times she’s had to do so thus far, she says, the average response time is over a day.

Almost all the shoppers we spoke to felt the number of canceled orders had risen recently. “In my two-and-a-half-almost years of shopping for Shipt I didn’t have an order cancel until the covid-19 pandemic,” said Tony James, who along with his wife Christina recently stopped working with Shipt for the sake of their health. Many felt the cancellations could be attributed to the unavailability of certain items—hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper—that panic-buying behavior has put in short supply around the country. “Canceled orders make up a very small percentage of all orders — about 1-2% in current circumstances,” Shipt told Gizmodo in a statement. Some shoppers believed there had been an uptick in payment processing and fraud issues, too.

Spending hours on hold is fundamentally inconvenient, but in the case of a shopper standing in a checkout line, with cold or frozen food potentially going bad, a two-hour wait is simply unacceptable. The only options are that they abandon the order, or pay for it with their own money and hope for a fast reimbursement from Shipt. Veronica recently took the latter option when her Shipt card declined on two orders worth a combined $250.

Shipt provides an estimated payout per job, which is determined by varying factors since it currently deploys at least two different formulas in different metro regions. But whether it’s the customer or the shopper canceling the order, the minimum pay immediately drops to just $5. “Up until this pandemic happened they were paying you the entire amount,” one shopper told Gizmodo. “They were paying promos, they were paying you the full amount for your time because most of the time, not only have you driven to the store, you have shopped the order or started shopping the order.” Considering gas to and from the store, “it’s costing me money, at that point, to work for them,” Robin Pape, an Ithaca-based gig worker, said of these canceled orders. However they choose to resolve a troublesome order, the hours spent on hold with Shipt’s support team aren’t compensated either.

In a statement, Shipt confirmed that “if a shopper starts shopping an order that is canceled, the shopper will automatically get paid an amount that accounts for the percentage of the order completed, with a minimum payment of $5.”

Like a select few businesses during the current recession, Shipt is growing. The company claims it has added 80,000 new shoppers in recent weeks, with plans to onboard 20,000 more by month’s end—roughly doubling its frontline workforce to keep up with orders. “While shopper growth was initially ahead of call center growth, both have doubled,” Shipt told Gizmodo. “Wait times have decreased by about half.”

While many essential retailers have made minimal concessions to provide something similar to hazard pay, including a $2-per-hour raise for Target’s hourly employees, shoppers believe Shipt may have actually decreased its pay contributions during the pandemic. The majority of shoppers we spoke to cited a noticeable slump in “promo” pay—essentially, the bonus Shipt attaches to certain orders to incentivize shoppers to claim them. Cassandra, a West-coast shopper, believes the usual maximum promo of $20 has fallen closer to around $15; an Alabama-based shopper also claimed the $15 figure was the new normal after previous highs of around $30.

So where could this claimed 30-percent increase in wages come from, if promo pay is reportedly down and cancellations have allegedly spiked? That figure, according to the company (emphasis theirs), “reflects an increase in average order payout across our entire shopper community, and is inclusive of a number of factors including order size and promo pay.” Without disclosing all those other factors, this would suggest customers, now increasingly housebound, are simply ordering about 30 percent more stuff, rather than any newfound generosity on Shipt’s part.

As Cassandra, the only shopper we spoke to who saw her wages increase, succinctly put it, “I have been making more money because I’m doing more orders because there’s been more people placing orders, and they’ve been tipping a lot more.” She’s currently supporting herself and her husband, who was recently laid off.

Shipt CEO Caruso’s back-patting over providing basic protective gear during a pandemic also rang hollow to the shoppers we spoke to. Shipt did email its shoppers to offer free personal protective equipment kits (though, in the small sample of shoppers we spoke to, at least one did not appear to receive that email), but fulfilling those orders was slow and the wait was hardly worth it, shoppers said. “I ordered it about two or three weeks ago, whenever that first email went out, and I just got it yesterday,” Veronica said. “It was a box of the vinyl gloves and it was two bottles of hand sanitizer. No face masks.”

The masks, another email promised, were available at Target, also at no charge to Shipt shoppers. Many we spoke to said they went to stores, only to be told that either those items were for employees only or that they hadn’t arrived at all. “They told me even for employees it’s very limited. They can only get one face mask per shift and that’s even including their lunch break, so you take it off, you have your lunch and then you’re supposed to put that same one back on,” Cassandra said. She was only able to secure a mask from Target after three attempts and a seemingly unnecessary conversation with a human resources staffer. A Shipt spokesperson said the unavailability of masks was due to a nationwide shortage, and that every Target store is currently stocked with masks.

Gallingly, Shipt’s own brand store was at one point selling reusable masks and hand sanitizer—for $10 and $12, respectively. “Masks and hand sanitizer were made available for purchase in error,” the company wrote to Gizmodo when asked about these listings. “We’ve since removed them from the Shipt Shop. All shoppers can pick up a free daily supply of masks and gloves from their local Target store.”

“Some of the stuff that you sent over it’s just not true, or it’s fabricated, or it’s blown out of proportion,” a Shipt representative told Gizmodo when approached with these questions. “So I just think that you’re hearing from people who have an agenda.” This representative claimed the company was unaware of any issues shoppers were having with obtaining PPE. They also seemed to indicate the failure to report these issues—despite claims of excessive hold times to reach Shipt in recent weeks—was “a case of crafting a narrative and not letting us help them.”

After asking Gizmodo to divulge the identities of the shoppers we spoke to, the representative, unprompted, provided information on a shopper who has publicly criticized the company in the press and whom they believed to be one of our sources. The representative gave the shopper’s name and claimed to have recently looked up their work history with the company, which they said showed few orders in recent months, in an apparent attempt to discredit them to us. This shopper is not among the eight shoppers whose experiences were used in this piece. Near the end of the call, the spokesperson attempted to claim the entirety of our conversation as “on background,” terms to which Gizmodo never agreed.

The Shipt representative called back shortly after, concerned about how the information from the prior call would be used because they “would never want anything to make anyone or any of our shoppers feel like we were less than supportive of the full shopper population.”