Is Grocery Delivery Ethical During a Pandemic?

It’s keeping people from crowding the supermarket aisles, but it’s also putting unprotected gig workers at risk

An Instacart shopper makes a grocery delivery in Washington, D.C. Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

“W“When the plague came to London in 1665, Londoners lost their wits,” historian Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker. “Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved the worst: Having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies.”

Today, only the richest of the rich have servants to do their shopping. The rest of us rely on Instacart, DoorDash, and Uber Eats.

This raises a thorny question: Is it ethical during the pandemic for healthy people to hire others to bring them food and take risks they want to avoid? Silicon Valley gig-economy firms do not provide workers with health insurance or hazard pay, and they need not even pay minimum wage.

“Those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs that enable us to work from home need to be honest with ourselves about whether we are bearing our fair share of the collective risk or whether our comfort is coming at too high a price to others,” says Karen Stohr, a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. “If we’re healthy, this may mean going to the grocery store ourselves rather than relying on others to do it for us.”

Healthy people who hire app-based shoppers may also be taking scarce delivery slots away from those who really need them. “I want to save those for my 83-year-old father, not for me,” says Stohr, who has been doing her own shopping. Some people in quarantine, including health care workers, have no choice but to buy groceries online — provided they can arrange for delivery.

By contrast, Chris MacDonald, chair of the department of law and business at Ryerson University in Toronto, argues that keeping as many people as possible away from supermarket aisles should benefit the health of the entire community. “It’s better to have one person going to the grocery store and doing no-contact delivery to 100 people than to have those 100 people mingling in the produce aisle,” says MacDonald, who trained as a philosopher and writes about business ethics.

With unemployment rising fast, food delivery also provides work to those who need it. Instacart is hiring 300,000 shoppers. “If I don’t use takeout or delivery, then those folks won’t have jobs at all,” notes R. Edward Freeman, a philosopher and professor of business administration at the University of Virginia.

GGrocery workers at Walmart, Giant, and Trader Joe’s have already died of the coronavirus. It’s impossible to know yet how many grocery deliverers have also become infected with the virus. Their jobs are no doubt riskier than those who are able to work from home due to repeat exposure to other people at the supermarket.

For consumers who are able to do so, the easiest way to support the people who bring food, medicine, and essential supplies to their doorsteps is to tip generously. But only the delivery companies or the government can make sure that the workers are treated fairly and safely, says Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization BSR, which stands for Business for Social Responsibility.

“We need good business and policy solutions,” Cramer says. “Businesses can ensure a reasonable wage, safe and healthy working conditions, and advocate for policy protections that workers need, especially now.”

The trouble is, gig-economy companies have fiercely opposed all efforts to provide safety-net protections for their workers. Only after California enacted a law known as AB5 that classifies most gig workers as employees did Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart put forth a California ballot measure that would give workers limited benefits, including a guarantee of at least 120% of minimum wage while on the job and a stipend for health care.

That’s a modest improvement over what they get now but not nearly enough, critics say. “These are predatory employers,” says Kathryn Wells, a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown. “They always have been.” She won’t use Uber, Lyft, or Instacart because she claims their business models are designed to exploit and deceive workers.

The trouble is, gig-economy companies have fiercely opposed all efforts to provide safety-net protections for their workers.

All of this is a discomfiting reminder that while the virus itself may not “discriminate based on national origin, race, gender, or zip code” (in the words of Joe Biden), the burdens of the coronavirus pandemic are falling most heavily on the poor, the working class, and black people. As Justin Ward wrote of the widening racial disparities: “To some, the outbreak is an inconvenience. To others, a waking nightmare.”

Gig workers have been fighting back. Groups like Gig Workers Collective, Gig Workers Rising, and Rideshare Drivers United have organized workers to press for better wages, benefits, workplace protections, and the right to unionize. The campaign #PayUp has published horror stories of gig workers who aren’t getting promised time off, even when ill. Some workers have called for strikes.

“We’re collaborating to really lift each other’s voices up and to build a narrative around worker power that I think our country has severely lacked for a really long time,” Vanessa Bain, who leads Gig Workers Collective, told the Washington Post back in December as part of an article that details the way Instacart squeezes its workers.

Under pressure, gig companies are responding, promising protective gear and sick leave among other things. Instacart says it is distributing health and safety kits. DoorDash says it is buying masks. But the Gig Workers Collective says these changes don’t go far enough: “There is still no meaningful progress in protections for [Instacart workers] who will fall ill. We are still without any sort of hazard pay, without accessible sick leave, without quarantine pay for those with a doctor’s note, and the in-app default tip amount is still not 10%.”

What are ethical shoppers to do? Those who should avoid stores — older people and others at high-risk of being infected — should seek out delivery services or companies that treat their workers better or, at the least, provide workers with health insurance. Those options include Peapod, whose workers are unionized, as well as Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Foods, smaller companies with an environmental mission to reduce food waste by selling produce that is off-size or off-color.

Hungry Harvest “checks my caring-for-the-planet box,” explains Susan Wexler, an agricultural economist in Bethesda, Maryland. “They also have good benefits for their employees, and they donate food boxes to food-insecure individuals.” Still another option is Dumpling, a technology platform that enables gig workers to start their own delivery businesses.

Some communities have organized mutual aid groups built around the idea that we can meet one another’s needs — like shopping — at the hyperlocal level rather than relying on gig workers.

As for those who must rely on Instacart or other gig-economy firms, they can speak up on behalf of workers or support one of the nonprofits trying to organize. Stohr, the Georgetown research scholar, says, “People who are benefiting from delivery service should feel a moral obligation to advocate for better protection for these workers.” One Fair Wage, which advocates for gig workers, is seeking volunteers and donations to support an emergency fund for delivery workers, car service workers, and restaurant workers.

One benefit of the crisis could be that we no longer take for granted those workers who, while not facing the same risks as the doctors or nurses who care for Covid-19 patients, are no less essential to our well-being.

“The pandemic has made crystal clear how much we all depend on various workers who keep the economy going,” says BSR’s Cramer. “Their well-being needs to be taken seriously.”

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

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