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Standing up for gig workers

Standing up for gig workers
© Courtesy photo

Shipt, the grocery delivery service owned by Target, had the reputation of being a more ethical alternative to the dominant Instacart, compensating staffers well and maintaining a healthy workplace culture.

At least that’s what Willy Solis thought when he started shopping for the app last November after working in construction for nearly 15 years.

In the year since, Solis, 42, has become the leading voice within Shipt calling out its opaque pay changes and demanding better treatment for his fellow workers.

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He arrived at Shipt as the company was undergoing significant changes. Since being acquired by Target in December 2017, the grocery delivery company expanded its service and began making notable operational tweaks.

Despite those changes, criticism from shoppers at the time was relatively muted compared to those from workers at other major gig companies such as Uber, Lyft and Instacart, all of which have had well-organized labor representation and plenty of media attention for years.

The rapid growth at Shipt led to Solis’s first worries about his new job.

In the busy Thanksgiving season, shoppers reported Shipt’s helplines being overwhelmed.

“Shipt took a long time to answer the phones — we’re talking 30 minutes to an hour, sometimes even more, standing inside stores,” Solis, who lives and works in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, told The Hill in a recent interview. “And then we’re marked late on top of that, so that’s where I started questioning some things.”

When he began asking questions about those late marks in Shipt’s official Facebook group, the Shipt Shopper Lounge, Solis said he was censored, an experience several others complained about at the time.

His brewing concerns about the independence of shoppers intensified when Solis began hearing wind of a proposed change to Shipt’s pay model.

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Shipt previously had a simple equation — a 7.5 percent commission on all orders plus $5 — to calculate payouts, but early this year, it began rolling out a new model, dubbed V2, that gives out pay based on a black box algorithm.

When that model was piloted in some metro areas, many workers noticed that their average pay was dropping. 

Shipt has defended the transition to the new pay scale as more correctly accounting for the effort that goes into each delivery and stresses that average fees per shop have not fallen, sitting at a little less than $22 per order.

While public data about shopper payouts is hard to come by, one study using more than 6,500 data points collected from 213 workers found that 41 percent of shoppers are so far earning less under the new payment calculation.

The MIT researchers behind the study agreed with Shipt’s position that pay increased slightly on average but found that those increases were not distributed evenly.

Complaints about the new model spurred Solis into action. He began reaching out to shoppers in the first cities who expressed concerns about V2: Kalamazoo, Mich., and San Antonio.

“Shipt was really monitoring and trying to shut down those conversations,” he explained. “So we took that behind the scenes and started communicating through Messenger and within about a two-week period I reached out to over 600 shoppers.”

Solis said that those conversations with people who depended on Shipt for their livelihood motivated him to take action.

Solis, along with a handful of shoppers who felt comfortable going public with their concerns, created the Shipt List, a Facebook group and organizing platform, in February.

Vanessa Bain, an organizer with Instacart who has helped Solis plan events, told The Hill it was surprising to hear anyone speaking out about Shipt at the time.

“The overwhelming consensus about Shipt was that it was very cult-like, very hard to break that internal culture, that nobody really was emboldened to be the person to start that dialogue,” she said.

The Shipt List has grown to more than 2,700 members as concerns with the new pay model going national, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, have added fuel to the fire.

Solis has managed to organize three worker strikes and a physical protest in two cities since.

While Shipt maintains that the shoppers criticizing its practices are just a “small, vocal minority” out of the 200,000 people who work on the platform, Solis and the rest of the organizers have succeeded in seizing the spotlight.

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The in-person September strikes at Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis and Shipt’s headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., were a high-water mark for Solis’s organizing.

“We think that by them seeing the physical bodies that are showing up, and knowing that each body represents thousands of people behind them, it’s hard for them to say that, that we’re a small vocal minority,” he said.

Bain heaped praise on Solis for organizing a physical demonstration in so little time.

“The amount of growth that his organizing has done in that time is just astronomical and really unprecedented — it took us years to get to the point where Willy has gotten in months,” she said. “His passion is infectious ... there’s so many people now that are aware of the fact that Shipt is not an ethical alternative to Instacart.”

Bain said that the work Solis has done at Shipt has boosted organizing across the gig work space.

“Having somebody who can emerge as a natural leader and really speaks the language of the workers that are working for that app is so critical,” she said. “It’s so important that the workers are the ones that drive where the organizing goes.”

Solis has managed to notch a few quantitative wins for his fellow workers at Shipt.

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After the Shipt List circulated a pay stub for $0.29 on an order that would have normally netted upward of $10 in March, the company instituted a $5 minimum on canceled orders. In August, Shipt acknowledged an error in its tipping system that had been raised by shoppers and agreed to begin auditing all tipped and failed orders moving forward.

And Solis does not plan to stop pushing for improved conditions anytime soon. The Shipt List is still pushing for the V2 payment model to be rolled back to its more transparent predecessor and has concerns about tips being paid out inconsistently.

“Knowing the fact that we developed this platform, knowing the fact that Shipt wants to tear it down, knowing the fact that it’s the only resistance that we have to the issues that are presented before us is what keeps me here,” Solis said.