The houses along my new grocery delivery route are easy to find. They’re also fancy, two-story brick fronts in a new development just east of Austin, so I’m expecting good tips. Then I realize I made a mistake on my professional grocery shoppers’ app. I didn’t log in the order correctly. I’m fairly sure I’ve given these customers their food for free. I expect I won’t get paid.
In just six weeks, I have lost a comfortable job as a communications director for a nonprofit and moved into the ranks of people paid to risk getting the coronavirus. I now shop for groceries for Austinites who don’t want to be in crowded store aisles. I am among the thousands of professional shoppers who’ve become masked and gloved essential workers. I don’t know what it’s like to have done this as a career. But right now, the work doesn’t feel heroic. It feels grim and scary.
It also felt like my only option. The few employers who have responded to my résumé over the past month froze their hiring processes. It may be many months, even a year, before I can get a job in my field. What’s more, no retail businesses are open, and even call center jobs are thinning. And with a son in college for the past four years, I don’t have a lot of savings.
While looking for work, I had read that some professional grocery shoppers had recently walked off the job to demand masks and hazard pay, and that their employers, companies like Shipt and Instacart, had provided the equipment but not the money. App-based professional shopping is gig work; you get paid by the job. Shipt pays a low rate based, in part, on the size of the order, leaving workers to make most of their money through tips. But as the economy crashes, Shipt has one big thing going for itself—it’s still hiring. So I took the job.
On day two, I figure out how my app works. You have to click on each item in the grocery order to indicate it was found and then log everything as bought. If you can’t find something, the app tells you whether the customer wants to text about replacements. You don’t want to replace items and text, because then the order takes more time and you make less money per hour.
My customer, whose order is at the Wheatsville Food Co-op on Guadalupe in Austin, wants to text. She’s ordered difficult-to-find name-brand products, like NadaMoo nondairy ice cream and powdered organic collagen. And since it’s Easter Sunday and the co-op is one of the few stores open, the shelves are emptying fast. It takes me two hours to fill the order, and between replacing her ice cream flavors, which requires several texts, and logging replacements into the app, I am confused, sweaty, and close to tears. I am also terrible at this job.
My customer then decides she wants to meet me at the co-op, probably thinking that it will make my life easier, but she goes to the wrong Wheatsville location—the one all the way across the river on South Lamar nearly eight miles away. I’m already outside with her ice cream. I ask an employee if she will put it back in the freezer. The request creates a security situation.
The employee, wearing bunny ears for Easter, calls a manager over. At a distance of six feet, we discuss how to transfer the ice cream without coming close to each other. The manager tells me to put the ice cream on the ground and back away. She approaches, picks it up, and takes it back into the store. When my customer and her husband finally arrive, we repeat the process in reverse.
On day three, I choose an order at H-E-B in East Austin, where the line of customers reaches down the center aisle of the parking lot and doubles back—a fifteen-minute wait that whittles away my pay. Today, everyone has masks on, bandanas knotted around necks, patches of patterned cloth stitched with fasteners for the ears, and raggedy masks cut from T-shirts, which is what I have on.
My customer, Robert, has a big family-friendly order: four loaves of Dave’s Killer Bread, 24 eggs, Stouffer’s family-size frozen lasagna, big boxes of variety snack packs. I imagine that he’s a dad ordering food for four teenagers stuck at home for the last six weeks. He texts that I can use my judgment about replacements. I love Robert. I finish his order quickly, thinking that this time I might make a decent wage. But then Robert stops responding to my texts.
Arriving at his address, I find that he’s not a stressed-out dad living with his brood in a townhouse. He lives on the sixth floor of a chichi high-rise off rapidly gentrifying South Congress Avenue. Class resentment sets in. I am not going to walk all of his groceries up to his door. I send two more texts, my pay melting as fast as his frozen lasagna. I give up, persuade the employee in the lobby of the building to take his groceries, and drive home.
On day four, I’m already depressed. I’m lying on my bed feeling like an inferior. There are people who can and can’t afford to shelter at home—and I am among the latter. There’s also something especially grim about spending hours a day among people in masks. There are no nods or smiles, none of the ordinary cues of humanity. With their faces masked, people seem robotic.
On day five, I deliver groceries for Hannah, who has almost the same food values as me. She buys no-nonsense items for a non-cook: H-E-B brand raisin bran, H-E-B sharp cheddar cheese slices, and Amy’s organic frozen meals. She tells me to replace the Mexican casserole and the broccoli and cheddar bake with anything else by Amy’s. She seems friendly and easygoing.
At the end of my first week, I check my delivery history. Robert is redeemed because he gave me a $45 tip. So too is the customer with the fussy order who gave me $35. Two people, including Hannah, gave me no tip at all. I no longer feel warmth for them. My assessment of human beings, I realize, is now based entirely on how much they tip.
In total, I have made $261.05 from eight orders. I am spending more than two hours on each order, which means I am averaging less than $15 an hour.
On day eight, I wake up with a splitting headache. I start to worry that I’ve already contracted the virus. Instantly, my foray into professional grocery shopping seems reckless, a thousand times over not worth the money. As my head pounds, I imagine breaking the news to my son and my sisters. I test my sense of smell against a cup of leftover coffee. Still intact. Fifteen minutes later the headache has cleared, and I remember that it’s spring and I have allergies. I realize I will probably go shopping again.