At 6:30 a.m., four of five Gordon family members are roaming around their suburban Sacramento house — if you count only the humans. There are also four dogs, a bunny, a tortoise, chickens, ducks, goats and a not-so-miniature miniature pig named Squiggy.
Hilary Gordon is discussing the day's schedule with her husband in the middle of wrapping a breakfast sandwich for their 14-year-old, checking on cereal for their 17-year-old and staring down their 11-year-old, who just realized he forgot to finish today's math homework.
Having time like this with her family is a major reason that Gordon, 47, works as a shopper for the grocery delivery app Instacart in a suburb of Sacramento, Calif. "I find it fun. It gives me something to do. I'm not out spending money. And I love the flexibility," she says.
Instacart is one of a slew of similar apps — DoorDash, Postmates, Shipt — paying tens of thousands of workers like Gordon to deliver packages, food or groceries to strangers. Similar to those who drive for ride-share apps Uber and Lyft, delivery workers can choose when to work. But they don't have to invite strangers into their cars.
This draws women — often in their 40s and 50s — who now make up more than half the contractors working for major food delivery apps.
Instacart told NPR that more than 50% of people who shop for the app are women. DoorDash said women make up more than 50% of its "dashers" in rural and suburban areas and more than 60% in urban areas. Target's Shipt declined to share this statistic. Postmates said an April survey of its workers showed 48% were female and 38% had a child at home.
Gordon and a half-dozen other women shared with NPR details of working for delivery apps, which painted a picture of the epitome of gig work: accessible but high intensity, with pay that's quick but unpredictable and hours that are flexible but unreliable.
"I tell people it's a great thing to have, if you're looking for extra money but you don't really need it," said Christina Lewkowitz, 50, who works for Instacart, DoorDash, Shipt, Deliv and a vineyard in Sacramento.
'I will not work for free'
After splitting up school drop-offs with her husband, Gordon parks her Subaru SUV in a grocery store parking lot. Her Instacart shift today is 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. She's got her shopping sneakers on and a fully charged phone — watching the screen for incoming grocery orders, which she will both shop for and deliver.
The first "batch," as they call it, is a bust: $8 with no tip, for seven items, to be taken 4 miles. But the store is 8 miles away. Instacart says it pays 60 cents per mile for delivery to the customer, but it doesn't pay for the drive to the store in the first place. The company explains that it can't be sure that the worker, for example, isn't doing a non-Instacart gig until they begin shopping.
Logging miles is a big cost of the job. Some days Gordon might drive 100 miles, filling up the tank at least once a day. For every order, she does quick math to calculate the gas expense. This $8 order doesn't cut it. Gordon picks one of her canned responses to Instacart: "Pay too low. I will not work for free!"
"It's really hard to say yes to that, because you feel like then they're thinking, 'Oh, well, see, they'll work for that' — and I don't want to work for that," Gordon says.
But you can't skip too many orders — the app will think you stopped working. Gordon gets a good one: eight items for $9.87 plus a promise of a $6 tip. But most importantly, it's only 1.5 miles of driving. She can knock it out in about 20 minutes.
Shopping for other people is a bit like a scavenger hunt, except the app is timing you. You rush through the whole store, scanning every item that goes in the basket and messaging the customer with updates.
Gordon checks each bell pepper for blemishes, throws a Hail Mary on the ripeness of avocados, tells Instacart that "organic celery" is out of stock. The app suggests she grab "spring water" instead. Gordon laughs out loud.
After almost a year and a half with Instacart, Gordon says she still loves grocery shopping. And she especially loves meeting new people — chatting up store workers for help and playing with friendly pets she meets at customers' homes.
'Hopefully tomorrow is better'
Like a lot of gig workers, this is not a career that Gordon pictured for herself. She has two master's degrees — in counseling and family therapy.
She worked as a therapist in other states, but a move to California required more classes and exams, right as her oldest was born. Gordon became a social worker, until she made the calculation familiar to many working women: Her job took up mornings and evenings, with a not-so-great salary.
"When you're going to pay the majority of it to let someone else raise your kids? Just didn't make any sense," Gordon says.
A few years later, the recession hit. Her husband lost his job in finance. Their house value dropped. They're still paying down the debt that stacked up. But now there's also soccer, swim team, lacrosse, broken cleats, a junior prom dress, trips to look at colleges, AP exams, SAT tests and summer camp.
This rhythm is all too familiar for women doing app work. Gigs help cover some expenses of child and health care — an opportunity for side income on top of a steadier job, either the deliverer's or their partner's. Workers who do app-based jobs to supplement income form a growing cohort within the gig economy, says Shelly Steward of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.
Gig workers are often independent contractors who don't get benefits like health insurance or sick leave. And when families piece together multiple jobs and gigs to make a living, "the system of workplace benefits that's been in place does not adequately cover nearly as many workers," Steward says.
Stacie Ballard, 43, pieces together work for at least seven apps while building her own business in Atlanta. She keeps a stack of T-shirts in her trunk — green for Instacart, green and white to walk dogs for Wag!, green and gray to deliver packages for Shipt — changing between gigs as she earns extra cash for her teenager's graduation and other expenses.
"If you're a mom or a caregiver or something, it's really flexible," Ballard said. "It can be frustrating when you know you have certain bills that are coming up and you're like, 'OK, I need to make this much money. Hopefully tomorrow is better.' But so far it's always worked out."
All the things to consider
Ballard, like many women in the gig economy, works for apps part time. For one, hustling full time is exhausting. But also, hours can be hard to get.
On Instacart, available hourlong shifts get claimed within seconds, workers said. Part-time workers like Ballard and Lewkowitz often stalk the app all day, hoping to grab some.
Gordon is one of the Instacart regulars who get "early access" to a full week's worth of shifts so she can get hours predictable and long enough to make the work worth it for her. But to qualify, she commits to doing this "gig" full time, because early access requires working at least 90 hours in three weeks or 25 hours over three weekends.
Instacart says it has announced a pilot of a new way to qualify, which would encourage good customer ratings instead of long hours.
Even for full-timers like Gordon, signing up for shifts is "anxiety inducing." She describes frantic clicking on Sunday mornings, when the schedule opens, selecting all the hour slots before they get claimed, within minutes.
And after all that, as any gig worker knows, having more hours doesn't ensure a huge paycheck bump. It might be a slow day, or long distances might make orders not worth the cost of gas. Workers also consider the less obvious costs of these jobs. Is the order too complicated and time consuming? Too heavy?
Once, Gordon accidentally accepted a Costco batch with 81 cases of water. She says Instacart told her she could do multiple trips, but she refused and had to return — and ultimately give up — the whole order. So today, Gordon is eagle-eyed, spotting 13 cases of water in an otherwise appealing $32 batch.
One final thing she always checks is whether she knows the delivery address. Many delivery workers keep a mental track of locations that require climbing stairs, like apartments without elevators. On Gordon's mental list are also a house with the guy who greeted her in a robe, and an older man who pressured her into bringing his groceries inside and said he'd been tracking her.
And then there's the matter of tipping. Orders from businesses are notorious for being large and lacking tips. Workers say they wish the apps more aggressively encouraged their users to tip. Instacart recently changed its tipping system and retroactively compensated workers after workers and labor advocates fought a policy that counted tips toward base payments that Instacart promised for deliveries — sometimes offsetting what Instacart paid out of its own pocket.
Today, Gordon delivered eight orders in 10 hours and made $133, before extra bumps for heavy orders and good reviews. Today was OK. There was one day when she made $50 in six hours. That wasn't worth it. Gordon's best day's haul was $255 — when she worked almost 12 hours.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of the newest jobs of this economy have been created by apps like Uber and Instacart. And it turns out that grocery delivery gigs are particularly attractive to women, who make up the majority of workers. Two apps confirmed this to NPR's Alina Selyukh. As NPR's look into the full employment economy, she spent a day with one suburban mom in Sacramento to find out why.
HILARY GORDON: You want apple?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just apple and...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We'll be going to bed.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: At 6:30 a.m., 4 out of 5 Gordon family members are up - if you only count the humans, because there are also dogs, chickens, goats, a bunny, a tortoise and a not-so-miniature miniature pig.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Squiggy, come here. Good boy.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SNORTING)
GORDON: This is what I have in my kitchen every morning.
SELYUKH: That's Hilary Gordon - she's 47 - doing the morning mom hustle.
GORDON: OK. Your breakfast sandwich, Jane's check for graduation. Drew, soccer ball - really?
SELYUKH: Her daughters are 14 and 17. Her son is 11.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, by the way. I forgot. I have homework.
SELYUKH: Having time like this with her family is a major reason why Gordon works as a shopper for Instacart. It's one of the delivery apps that hires tens of thousands of people like her to deliver groceries from supermarkets - think Safeway or Sam's Club. It's the epitome of gig work.
Like with Uber and Lyft, you can decide when to work. But with deliveries, you don't invite strangers into your car. This draws women, often in their 40s and 50s, who now make up more than half of the contractors working for major food delivery apps.
GORDON: This is what I tend to do. I'll sit and wait.
SELYUKH: This Subaru SUV is Gordon's office. Her Instacart shift today is 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. She'll spend much of it in her car in parking lots with her shopping sneakers on, watching her phone, waiting for grocery orders.
GORDON: There we go. We've got a batch - $8, there's no tip, for seven items to take 4 miles.
SELYUKH: Plus, the store is another 8 miles away.
GORDON: It's really hard to say yes to that because you feel like then they're thinking, oh, well, see, they'll work for that. And I don't want to work for that.
SELYUKH: But you can't skip too many orders. The app will think you stopped working. Eventually, we get a good one.
GORDON: It's 9.87 for them and a $6 tip, but it's half a mile.
SELYUKH: We're close. The order is eight items. Gordon can knock it out in about 20 minutes. Shopping for other people is a bit like a scavenger hunt, except the app is timing you. You rush through the whole store, do your best quality checks on produce, some Hail Marys on hard versus soft avocados...
GORDON: Is it for tomorrow? Is it for today?
SELYUKH: ...And a surprising amount of chatting up store workers.
GORDON: Hi, Belle (ph). Do you know if they're going to stock more in here?
SELYUKH: Gordon says this is the part she loves the most - meeting other people at the store or at their homes, especially if they have friendly pets. But, like a lot of gig workers, this is not a career she pictured for herself.
GORDON: So I've got two master's degrees - one in counseling and one in - master of family therapy.
SELYUKH: Gordon worked as a therapist in other states, but a move to California required more classes and exams right as her oldest was born. She became a social worker until she made the calculation familiar to many working women. Her job took up mornings and evenings. Her salary - not great.
GORDON: When you're going to pay the majority of it to let somebody else raise your kids, just didn't make any sense.
SELYUKH: A few years later, the recession hit. Her husband lost his job in finance. Their house value dropped. They're still paying down the debt that stacked up. But now, there's also...
GORDON: Swim team, soccer - Drew's cleats fell apart on the field - trips to look at colleges, AP exams, junior prom dresses...
GORDON: This is what I heard a lot as I interviewed more than a half-dozen women working for Instacart and other delivery apps like DoorDash, Shipt and Postmates. They said the apps help them cover some expenses of child and health care and opportunity for side income on top of another steadier job - their own or their partner's. Researchers say this supplemental work is the fastest-growing part of the gig economy.
STACIE BALLARD: If you're a mom or a caregiver, something that's really flexible.
MARTIN: That Stacie Ballard from Atlanta, who's worked for at least seven apps while building her own business. She keeps a stack of work T-shirts in her trunk - a green one to walk dogs for Wag, a gray one to deliver packages for Shipt.
BALLARD: Run to the bathroom, put the shirt on, go through the grocery thing (laughter). And then, if it was the next one, swap the shirt out. And yeah, it was kind of funny.
SELYUKH: Ballard works for apps part-time, like many women in the gig economy. Hustling like this full-time is exhausting. But also, hours are unreliable. Take Gordon, who after a year and a half is a super user at Instacart. She's one of the regulars who gets early access to all hours for the week. But to qualify for that access, she has to commit to this gig basically full-time. And on Sunday mornings, it's a moment of madness signing up for shifts.
GORDON: So it's really anxiety-producing.
SELYUKH: And you're just clicking.
GORDON: Click, click, click, click, click and then save. And then you hit the next day. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.
SELYUKH: After all that, as any gig worker knows, having more hours does not assure a huge paycheck bump. Remember all that math Gordon does before deciding if an order is worth taking? Gas expenses are a huge factor. Some days, Gordon might drive a total of 100 miles. Instacart pays some of the delivery mileage, but not for the drive to the store in the first place. Next to consider is what she'll be buying. Is it complicated or heavy - like this job shopping for two customers at one store for 32 bucks before tips?
GORDON: It looks decent if you don't scroll all the way through to see the last - 13 cases of water.
SELYUKH: This lesson she learned early on when she accidentally signed up for a batch with 81 cases of water from Costco. She had to return and give up the whole order. One final thing she always checks is whether she knows the delivery address.
GORDON: There's occasionally places that I will not go.
SELYUKH: Shoppers said they like to keep mental track of houses with creepy dudes, apartments with no elevators and bad tippers. Orders from businesses are notorious for not tipping. So if the batch does not check all these boxes with enough money, Gordon will probably skip it with a sassy message for Instacart.
GORDON: Pay too low - I will not work for free.
SELYUKH: Today, she delivered eight orders in 10 hours and made $133. Today was OK. Her best day was $255 in 12 hours. As another woman told me, working for an app is a great job as long as you don't really need the money.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Sacramento, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.