Research Findings

Some heroes push shopping carts: how the pandemic changed gig workers

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February 23, 2023

During the crushing first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was hardly a store window or a street corner in America without a homemade sign thanking frontline workers. But these tributes weren’t just for the doctors, nurses, firefighters, and paramedics who risked their very lives to care for patients – occupations we typically think of as noble and sacrificial.

Suddenly, service workers who had long been invisible in the eyes of many consumers were being hailed as heroes for doing everyday tasks at a time when merely stepping outside of the house carried a risk of contracting the virus. Grocery store workers, surrogate shoppers, food deliverers, and other customer service employees who typically earn among the lowest wages found themselves held in the highest regard.

We believe the most interesting qualitative research is out there if you know where to look, and we didn’t have to look far beyond our neighborhoods to see that all the (literal!) signs of gratitude were pointing us in the direction of our next research topic. What happens when jobs are suddenly and unexpectedly moralized? How do workers react to their own jobs when the public narrative shifts in their favor? Do they see themselves as heroes worthy of such admiration, or do they reject the label and go on about their day?

Our study is the latest in a series of research on the gig economy. We interviewed 44 Instacart workers — first during the height of the pandemic and six months later after the public discourse died down. From those coded interviews and additional data, we determined that moralized workers fell into three categories in terms of how they reacted to their jobs. We identified them as Skippers, Stallers, or Strugglers. A brief description of each follows:

The skippers

These shoppers readily embraced the hero narrative, skipping over the hard parts along the typical hero’s journey and taking an uncritical view of their work as worthy. Interestingly, Skippers didn’t go the extra mile for their customers because their normal duties and exposure risk were enough to make them feel morally credentialed. They saw their customers as highly deserving — overwhelmed working moms, elderly shut-ins, and immunocompromised patients — and any tips, thank-you notes, or other tokens of appreciation justified their belief that they were heroes.

Skippers generally had a very positive view of Instacart and often turned their tasks into a sort of game to make the time spent in the grocery store more pleasant. But they also had low commitment to the platform. We found that one year into the “new normal” of the pandemic, no Skippers were still active on the Instacart app. That’s probably because most Skippers were not financially dependent on gig work. They had picked it up as a side hustle or a way to feel helpful during the pandemic. Once the crisis had passed and their heroic feelings faded, it was easier for them to let go.

The stallers

These shoppers rejected the hero label and saw their work as transactional and financially necessary. They did not believe shopping for others had any moral worth, and they viewed Instacart as exploitative and manipulative. Many of them mocked the company’s “Household Heroes” marketing campaign, which Instacart used to capitalize on the positive public sentiment and recruit more shoppers. One of our study participants named Frank had this to say about the company:

I may be the only one, but it really irritates me because they’re saying it to make themselves look good but aren’t giving us any kind of hazard pay…. The people at the top plan to sit back and [make] cash off of the pandemic for the rest of their lives, while some of us don’t make it past this year.

Compared with the Skippers, the Stallers thought of their customers impatient, unappreciative, and entitled. They believed most of their customers were healthy enough to get their own groceries, a view that falls in line with their rejection of the hero label. A shopper named Jack captioned his scorn in a social media post that read:

When the customer orders a $40 filet mignon along with $200 worth of other items and then tips $2, also says you’re a hero when you deliver to the garage of their $750,000 house. Whatever!

Even though Skippers seemed to hate the work, most of them stayed on the platform beyond the pandemic’s crisis point as long as they could keep earning. Why? Because most of them needed the money and had short-term work histories, including performing jobs that were far more difficult and dangerous than buying eggs and peanut butter. One man had been a ticket scalper, for example.

The strugglers

Unlike the clear-cut world of Stallers and Skippers, the Strugglers found themselves in a gray zone. They wrestled with the hero label and needed to reconcile the banality of grocery shopping with the idea that they were doing morally credentialed work. They hesitated to compare themselves to doctors and nurses, and they were uneasy about getting paid for their so-called heroism. As a result, Strugglers often went above and beyond for customers in order to justify the hero label. If a product was out at one store, they would use their own time to check other stores. When items like toilet paper were in short supply, they would keep a stash in the trunk of their car and offer a roll to customers who needed it.

Strugglers had a mixed view of Instacart and their customers, and that view generally worsened over time. Like Stallers, Strugglers needed the work. Many had been laid off or furloughed during lockdowns, were college students, or were in between jobs. A shopper named Eliza told us, “I’m doing this because I can get some extra money, and I don’t think that’s selfless at all…. I feel guilty because I’m making a profit out of the pandemic. I would say I’m not really doing it for the right reasons, if I’m going to be honest.”

It’s important to note that Strugglers were the only study participants who gave us pictures of thank-you notes and other accolades – mementos they had collected perhaps in an effort to justify their heroism. It’s also significant that most of the Strugglers who stayed in the gig economy after the worst of the pandemic switched to Shipt and other platforms that allowed them to develop a personal relationship with their customers. That bond helped them to see their customers as deserving, which gives them a more positive view of their own work.

The business lesson

One of the overarching goals of my research on the gig economy is to focus on the experiences of the individual so we can better understand this growing segment of workers. But this paper also yielded a lesson for businesses such as Instacart.

The company was correct in seizing on the hero sentiment with its marketing campaign and a push to expand the number of workers on the platform. It doesn’t take a marketer, advertiser, or public relations specialist to see that the moment was right to give that go. But Instacart could not hold on to those workers after the hero narrative subsided. Instead of using that moment to figure out what would keep those workers engaged, the company did what so many others do: focus on the acquisition of more workers and more customers, perhaps at the expense of existing ones.  

Instacart’s experience shows how the sudden moralization of work, which is often used to control workers, can backfire. Low-wage workers were not unified by the hero narrative. Instead, they were polarized and isolated by it. And that is something to worry about for gig and contract workers who lack the social structure and sense of community that comes with being together in an office.

The study also deepens our knowledge about how gig workers define themselves and relate to their work in a fragmented space. There is a psychological “balancing act” between the schedule flexibility and autonomy offered by gig work and its dehumanizing technology, inconsistent wages, and potentially poor working conditions. Sudden moralization adds another dimension to that self-narrative, and each worker responds differently.

Not all heroes wear capes. But telling workers they have capes does not necessarily make them heroes.

Read more

Lindsey D.Cameron, Curtis K.Chan and Michel Anteby. “Heroes from above but not (always) from within? Gig workers’ reactions to the sudden public moralization of their work.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 2022.

Image: Marco Vech via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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