SUPERIOR, Colo. – As the display time ticks toward 7 a.m., Jeff Mitchell swipes his iPhone's screen. Again. And again. And again.
"Here we go," says Mitchell, 43, as the app on his phone finally shows his first assignment: an order of toilet paper, fresh fruit, sparkling water, onions and juice for a customer shopping at Costco.
Only, the customer isn't really doing the shopping – she's paid to give the work and the risk to Mitchell, who slips on a mask and rolls an orange flatbed cart into the membership-only warehouse store as it opens early exclusively for Instacart shoppers like him.
Across the country, many of the 500,000 Instacart shoppers like Mitchell are simultaneously doing the same thing: checking the app, loading up carts and delivering groceries to Americans remaining isolated in their homes. Even though he's aware of the dangers, Mitchell grinds out order after order to pay child support for his two children, and to hopefully earn enough to move out of his in-laws' home and into an apartment with his wife.
"The stimulus only went so far," he says. "I'm getting bills taken care of right now, and a lot of people are going in the opposite direction, falling behind. I’ve never been ahead and had money in savings. And during this pandemic I’ve finally been able to do that."
Striking workers demand safety gear
Instacart was popular before the coronavirus hit, but stay-at-home orders have supercharged demand for the grocery delivery and pick-up service. At the same time, the company headquartered in San Francisco has benefited from a new workforce created by the collapse of other gig-style jobs like Uber and Lyft, along with the other 36.5 million Americans who've lost their jobs or been furloughed, according to the latest unemployment claims.
Mitchell used to be one of those Uber and Lyft drivers, bringing in $70,000 annually working the bar-closing shift in nearby Boulder, a college town full of wealthy out-of-state students attending the University of Colorado. He started working as a driver because the warehouse job he used to have barely covered his bills, and Uber and Lyft allowed him to earn a lot more.
But his wife hated the hours he worked, and he didn't like how many miles he was putting on his car or dealing with rowdy drunks at 2 a.m. He migrated to Instacart as the pandemic began spreading and as the coronavirus lockdowns grew stricter, Mitchell's earnings went up: some days he was making about $400.
It didn't last. As more out-of-work Americans joined the Instacart shipping ranks, competition drove his pay down to the point where some days there's no work at all. He now earns roughly $30 for each shop-and-delivery he completes.
"Monday, I took it off," he says, sitting in the parking lot awaiting the day's first order. "Mondays have gotten really bad, so I didn't even bother getting out of bed."
Mitchell shops for Instacart full time, supporting the two kids, 18 and 14, he had with his first wife and a girlfriend. He dreams of buying a home for his new wife.
His work also helps the hundreds of customers he serves reduce their risk from the virus, even if it means increasing his own.
The conflict between demand for Instacart's service and the safety concerns of its shoppers prompted a smattering of protests around the country in April and May. Instacart says order volume was up 300% in April compared to the same month last year, and the number of shoppers has leapt from about 200,000 in mid-March to about 500,000 today.
Mitchell didn't strike, and he has not yet received the safety gear Instacart has promised for every one of its shoppers. The company says it has shipped out "hundreds of thousands" of the kits, which include hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.
He has reason to be concerned for his health: Three years ago he suffered a "widowmaker" heart attack, leaving him vulnerable to coronavirus infections, which have disproportionally killed people with preexisting health conditions.
"I'm just hoping to God I don't get sick," he says.
Mitchell's days all start pretty much the same: He makes the 30-mile drive from Fort Lupton, where the median household income is about $47,500, to the upscale Boulder suburb of Superior, a former coal-mining town home to sprawling suburban mansions, tech workers, doctors and rocket scientists, where the median household income is about $120,000 annually.
Every morning, he waits for the Instacart app to begin populating with orders. Each order tells him how many items it contains, how far he'll have to drive, and most importantly, how much he stands to earn.
While waiting for those first orders of the day, he reminisces about past orders and tips: The day before, he delivered an $800 order to a woman who gave him a $100 tip. Those are the good days, he says.
He swipes his iPhone's screen to find his next assignment. Again. And again.
Pork, beef, chicken supply declining
As each order comes in, Mitchell plunges into a store and gets to work, grabbing a cart and hustling through the aisles, iPhone in hand.
Most orders follow a predicable pattern. Customers want bread, milk, toilet paper, fruits and veggies, beef, pork and chicken. At this point, Mitchell has local grocery stores at least partly memorized, allowing him to put an item into his cart every 70 seconds on average.
Top-rated shoppers (the app shows a leaderboard based on speed) average about 38 seconds between putting each item in their cart. The faster he shops, the more money he can potentially make, so Mitchell avoids stores that are crowded or out of certain items. While he usually starts his days at Costco, he'll bounce between as many as five other stores in a single day.
As he zips up and down the aisles, Mitchell scans each item with his iPhone's camera. Anything he can't find either gets replaced with something else or refunded, which he tries to avoid because it brings down his earnings for that delivery.
Customers decide their tip amount when they place their order, and can lower it if they think he's too slow or raise it if they think he worked extra-hard for them. That's created a situation called "tip enticing" or "tip baiting," where customers offer a generous tip to encourage a shopper to take their order, and then lower it upon delivery. Mitchell says he's only had that happen once, when a man in a particularly wealthy area of Boulder offered a $75 tip on a grocery order but then slashed it in half once he'd delivered to the four-story home.
A big part of the challenge for Mitchell is figuring out whether "2 Brussels sprouts" means 2 pounds or two sprouts. He's also got to make sure he's grabbing the right kind of blue corn tortilla chips, organic strawberries or yogurt, given that packaging can change. He consults store workers frequently, asking one to track down cored pineapple and another to help him find wonton wrappers tucked into the corner of an open-topped cooler.
The Instacart app often assigns him to do shopping for two or even three customers simultaneously in the same store, so he orders deli meat and cheese from the counter before weaving off through the aisles to find clementines and a particular kind of sausage before looping back to the counter to collect them, nestling the plastic packages amidst the salsa containers and crackling bags of tortilla chips.
Mitchell quickly reviews each order before accepting it to avoid any containing items he knows are already sold out for the day. Right now, many stores are short on basics: yeast, flour and sugar, and increasingly, chicken, pork and beef, and he doesn't want the shortages to hurt his earnings.
The grocery store workers and the other customers wear masks and keep at least 6 feet apart. But Mitchell is still touching the same carts, scales and items as other shoppers, every act potentially increasing his risk of getting sick.
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Helping others stay safe
Mitchell hustles back to his car, piling the groceries into the truck before consulting his iPhone for directions. As he winds his battered Pontiac Grand Prix through a tree-lined neighborhood of new homes, Mitchell explains that he tries to maintain distance from other people while working and always wears the mask his wife got him. Opportunities to wash his hands are few.
He pulls up alongside an $850,000 home where a young mom in yoga pants is strapping a toddler into a stroller between the family's two parked Lexus SUVs. She points to where she wants the bags dropped, and Mitchell hustles through the garage door.
Seeing customers in person is a chance to make a good impression and possibly increase his tip. Before the pandemic, he'd often carry groceries upstairs for his older clients. Now his interactions with customers are limited almost entirely to a shouted "thanks" as he delivers the plastic bags to doorsteps. Most don't even say hello.
That's fine with Mitchell, whose face is buried in his phone as he walks away from the home. He swipes the screen to find his next assignment. Again. And again.
The U.S. has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world, with more than 84,000 deaths since February. In Boulder County, testing has confirmed about 800 infections and 57 deaths. But Mitchell suspects fear of the virus is overblown. He says he isn't worried about dying from COVID-19.
All the same, he doesn't want to lose out on wages if he gets sick. As far as he's concerned, taking safety precautions is a small price to pay for the opportunity to keep working. He says he's worked far worse jobs that paid a lot less.
"I don't have a lot of skills. As long as there's work, I'm taking advantage," he says.
There are always more hours to work. He swipes his iPhone's screen to find his next assignment. Again. And again.
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America’s Food Chain: Who feeds the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic?
As many of us across America have hunkered down in our homes under safer-at-home orders, someone else has had to venture out day after day to keep the country fed.
To get the food from the farm to our tables, they continue to work – sometimes without the protections we’re told are crucial to guard against the coronavirus – to pick the oranges, slaughter the pigs, truck the goods and cook the food, so America can continue to eat.
Through an occasional series of intimate portraits in the coming weeks, USA TODAY Network journalists are shining a light on their lives and work.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Online grocery shopping puts workers at risk, but pays well for some