As thetore through the US in March, Rachel paid attention to the news and tried to be careful. Things were going well for the Las Vegas Instacart shopper. Yes, she had to wait in long supermarket lines when working for the delivery company, but she was getting big orders that made for nice paydays.
Rachel wore rubber gloves as she shopped for people's food. But at that point in the pandemic, she didn't quite realize she probably should've been wearing a mask too.
"I started getting a really bad cough and had difficulty breathing," said Rachel, 45, who doesn't want to use her last name for fear of retaliation. "My chest was so heavy. I would literally get anxiety because I couldn't breathe."
Like hundreds of thousands of other people across the country, Rachel worried she'd contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Her doctor recommended a test for the respiratory illness and told her to quarantine as she waited for the results, which could take a couple of weeks. Unable to work, Rachel sent Instacart a letter from her doctor. She asked for the sick pay that the company said it was offering workers during the pandemic.
"We carefully reviewed the documentation and, unfortunately, we were unable to confirm this claim at this time," Instacart responded 14 days later in an email seen by CNET.
To get approved, the company said Rachel would have to provide either a positive COVID-19 test or get a "mandatory quarantine order by [a] public health agency." A doctor's letter wasn't enough.
Dozens of other Instacart shoppers say they've also had doctor's notes turned down and were told to get a letter from a public health agency, according to advocacy group Gig Workers Collective. They say Instacart's sick leave policy creates a catch-22 because it's nearly impossible to get that documentation. Of the group's 17,000 members who are Instacart shoppers, only one is known to have gotten paid leave.
"Apart from that particular shopper, I don't know of a single other person," said Vanessa Bain, an organizer for Gig Workers Collective. "It's literally designed to keep people from being able to access it."
Instacart isn't the only gig economy company wrestling with paid leave policies for its workers during the pandemic. Uber and Lyft say they've provided financial assistance to hundreds of drivers and delivery workers, though many of those workers have reported difficulties in getting qualified. The two companies, along with Postmates and Amazon, require a doctor's letter to get the financial assistance, rather than a note from a public health official. Many of those workers say the process is complicated, but with persistence can be sorted out.
Instacart declined to share the number of shoppers it's given paid leave, but said it's spent $20 million over the last few weeks to support its shoppers. It said that money covers several initiatives, including sick leave, health and safety kits for shoppers, bonuses for its hourly employees who work in grocery stores and promotions for delivery workers.
"These are unprecedented circumstances, and we're doing everything we can to support those affected by this crisis," an Instacart spokeswoman told CNET.
Public health officials say providing sick leave is crucial in halting the spread of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends employers offer workers paid leave if they're exposed to or infected with COVID-19. Officials say this stops people from continuing to work and exposing others to the virus.
Instacart, which is based in San Francisco, said it's been working daily with federal and local health officials and is following the CDC's guidance on safety protocols. The company also confirmed that in order to get sick leave, shoppers must be "placed in mandatory isolation or quarantine, as directed by a local, state, or public health authority."
Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven, said public health departments might not be able to provide the documentation Instacart is requiring. Public health agencies work on cases in the aggregate, rather than on specific individuals, she said. If an agency does have information on an individual, it won't share it with an employer because of federal privacy laws.
"What the public health department doesn't do is say, 'Joe Smith has COVID-19,'" McGee said. With Instacart, "I think they're creating an artificially high bar for that documentation."
Many state laws say employers can't require doctor's notes, much less letters from a public health department, for sick leave. During the pandemic, California has included another layer of protections around paid leave.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order saying all of the state's food sector workers must be provided sick leave by their companies. His office confirmed to CNET that this order included Instacart shoppers.
Under the executive order, companies must make sick leave available for "immediate use" for food sector workers. To get that leave, workers just have to provide the company with an oral or written request. If workers are denied that request, the state says to file a wage claim or report a labor law violation with the Labor Commissioner's Office, which is responsible for enforcing the order.
"If the company is asking for workers to provide a letter from a public health authority in order to qualify for leave, this policy is inconsistent with the plain language of the executive order," said Paola Laverde, spokeswoman for the Labor Commissioner's Office.
After Instacart rejected Rachel's sick leave, she reached out to the office of the Nevada Labor Commissioner but was told there wasn't much that could be done. So she kept trying to get a letter from a public health authority.
"I called the CDC. I called the Nevada Department of Health. They said, 'We don't provide that,'" Rachel said. "I literally exhausted every single avenue that I thought I could. I'd call one place and they'd tell me to call another."
Not an isolated incident
Instacart's paid leave policy drew attention on social media earlier this month when a San Francisco shopper, Alejo, was hospitalized with COVID-19 and still wasn't able to get help. (CNET isn't using Alejo's full name to protect his privacy.)
Alejo came down with COVID-19 symptoms on April 12, and over the following days it got worse, according to Gig Workers Collective. By April 16, he'd tested positive for the virus and on April 21 he was admitted to the hospital. His health continued to deteriorate, and he was moved to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator.
In the meantime, his stepson Alejandro, who also works for Instacart, filed a sick leave claim on Alejo's behalf. Alejandro didn't hear back from the company for 12 days, according to Gig Workers Collective. When Instacart did respond, it said his stepfather's claim was denied because it didn't come from a public health authority.
"This is not an isolated incident," said Bain from Gig Workers Collective. "We know that shoppers are getting sick and unfortunately Instacart is not paying them."
Gig Workers Collective wrote about the situation in a blog post earlier this month. After the post published, Instacart paid Alejo's sick leave. (CNET was unable to directly speak with Alejo or Alejandro.)
"Our hearts go out to Alejo's family and loved ones during this challenging time -- the entire Instacart team is wishing him a safe recovery," the Instacart spokeswoman told CNET. "Our team has been in direct contact with his family to offer support through our extended pay financial assistance program."
Instacart shoppers havedemanding accessible sick leave, hazard pay and better safety equipment. Many say , with flimsy masks and not enough hand sanitizer. The workers also say they want the company to provide paid leave to .
Before the pandemic began, Instacart had roughly 200,000 shoppers working for it. Now it has more than 500,000, and that number is growing. As people stay home and have their groceries delivered, Instacart has seen its order volumesince the same time last year. The company said in April that it's planning to recruit 250,000 more shoppers.
With all of its shoppers, UNH's McGee said it's important for Instacart to provide paid leave and let sick workers stay home.
"Protecting their public health is essential to our economy and keeping everyone healthy and safe," McGee said. "Not providing those workers with protections could have negative consequences across our society."
Wait and see
For Rachel, one of the most excruciating parts of her experience with Instacart was having to wait for a response about her sick leave. By the time she heard back, it was her last day of quarantine.
"When someone is sick and not feeling well, the worry is enough," Rachel said. "To have to worry about something like that too, it's just terrible."
Along with Rachel and Alejandro, several other Instacart shoppers who've submitted claims say they've experienced the same thing. Responses often take about two weeks no matter how many times shoppers message the company. Rachel said she emailed Instacart every day trying to get an answer.
By the time Rachel heard from the company, her COVID-19 test came back negative, to her relief. But given her symptoms, her doctor was skeptical of those results.
Since then, Rachel has asked Instacart to reconsider her claim and to accept the original quarantine letter from her doctor. She said she's probably emailed the company at least 30 times over the past three weeks and still hasn't heard back.
"As shoppers, I get it, we're going at our own risk," Rachel said. "But at some point, people's lives need to matter."