U.S. Senators Call for Investigation Into Instacart for Enabling the Worst People

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) (Photo: Getty)
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) (Photo: Getty)

There are a million flavours of shithead on this bountiful planet, but far and away one of the most unforgivable are the subset of rat bastards who engage in the practice of “tip-baiting” gig workers. As of today, a handful of lawmakers are demanding Instacart stop allowing the practice, and are asking the FTC to get involved.

If you’re a different type of person — maybe even a decent human being — who can’t fathom what tip-baiting might mean, here’s what you need to know:

  • Instacart allows customers to change the amount they tip a shopper for up to three days after an order has been delivered
  • Demand on gig workers during the pandemic has been extreme
  • Orders that pay more tend to get prioritised by these workers, as they often have no health coverage and each trip to the grocery store is another dice roll for their physical well-being
  • Unscrupulous lowlives who want their food and don’t care about other people will input enormous tips to get shoppers to take them first, and then reduce them to nothing or nearly nothing once the order is complete

If you do this, you deserve to eat broken glass.

Instacart is aware that this takes place, if not from reviewing its own proprietary metrics, then from seeing it reported out several months ago. Nor is this the first time Instacart has gotten in hot water over its tipping policies, which, like rival DoorDash, had previously been used to subsidise worker wages.

“Shoppers risk their health and safety in order to deliver groceries and other goods to people who are sheltering in place — they should be able to count on reasonable compensation for that risk,” Senators Brian Schatz, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Chris Van Hollen wrote today in a letter to CEO Apoorva Mehta. “By permitting customers to ‘bait’ shoppers with high tips that are then revoked, your company’s compensation policy enables this deception.”

The lawmakers sent a separate but largely identical letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, urging the agency to investigate tip-baiting on Instacart.

In spite of widespread shelter-in-place orders around the country and massively increasing demand for delivery services like Instacart, Grubhub, and Uber Eats — none of which provide benefits or a living wage for their couriers — most have still failed to turn a cent in profit during the pandemic. Instacart, apparently the sole exception, reportedly took in a meager $US10 ($15) million in April, despite once having a $US7.6 ($11) billion valuation. Restaurants themselves are positioned to suffer greatly under the fees such platforms impose on them, and delivery couriers are increasingly expressing discontent through strikes and other labour actions.

We all need to eat, and yet mysteriously there’s no money to be made from the most captive of captive audiences (at least until a startup starts selling on-demand air). Does anyone else think maybe, just maybe, there are too many rent-seeking middlemen? An end to tip-baiting would be a wonderful piece of immediate relief for the most vulnerable in this long-running Ponzi scheme, but something just as bad or worse will crop up another six months from now unless the gig economy isn’t heavily regulated or buried outright.