He’s delivering your groceries to you. He’s also risking his life

Ellen McCarthy

THE WASHINGTON POST – You have to protect the things you can, so when the cashier at the Harris Teeter checkout counter asked Matt Gillette if he wanted anything double-bagged, he considered the stakes.

“I’m really just worried about the eggs,” he said, before carefully wrapping a second bag around a carton.

The eggs were not his. Gillette, 36, makes shopping runs for customers who place orders via Instacart from the safety of their homes.

On this day, Gillette’s cart held provisions for three households. He was worrying about their eggs so they didn’t have to.

He is part of a corps of workers who have become essential in the coronavirus pandemic: those who are willing to risk venturing out to places that many people are trying to avoid.

Instacart shopper Matt Gillette delivers groceries in Washington, DC. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Matt wipes down the door of his car after completing an order at a Harris Teeter supermarket in Washington, DC.
Matt prepares to fulfil an order at a Giant supermarket at a Harris Teeter supermarket in Washington, DC

Gillette was dressed for the job in jeans and a T-shirt. No mask, no gloves. He had hand sanitiser and wipes in his car, for disinfecting after the fact.

“As an HIV-positive person, it does worry me a little bit,” he said. But, he added, “I am more cognisant of the fact that I’ve got to survive.” In this case, survival didn’t just mean avoiding infection; it meant continuing to work so he could buy groceries of his own.

The eggs would make it safely into Gillette’s car and then safely en route to their destinations: a large apartment building, a penthouse with a private elevator operated by a concierge, and an upscale home where a voice would ask him if he would mind leaving the groceries on the other side of the door.

For years there has been talk of a divided America: those who have thrived in the modern economy and those who have been hurt by it. The wrath of a highly contagious coronavirus has made that dividing line bluntly literal: It’s about two inches thick, and it locks.

Gillette spent the past two years trying to make the gig economy work for him. He’s driven people around via Lyft, done their handiwork via TaskRabbit. It hasn’t been much of a living.

He’s been on the verge of homelessness, crashing with friends and asking others to take in his beloved dog, a Labrador mix named Nitro. He’s currently living with a friend, kicking in rent when he can.

Things had been looking up in early March, when he was in line to interview for a management position with a local parking company. Then came the novel coronavirus, the closures, the stay-at-home orders.

Healthcare professionals warned that the coronavirus would not discriminate between rich and poor, black and white, insured and uninsured. But there is emerging evidence that covid-19 is killing a disproportionate number of African Americans, and the virus’ broader economic fallout is not egalitarian.

Salaried workers fortunate enough to be able to work remotely have a couple of safety nets: the paycheques that are still being deposited into their bank accounts, and the healthcare plans that will protect them financially if they do fall sick – a scenario made less likely by the privilege of teleworking.

An Axios/Ipsos survey released last week found that 48 per cent of upper-middle-class Americans are working from home, compared with 11 per cent of their lower-middle-class counterparts. For the latter group, it’s seldom an option.

When Gillette signed up to deliver groceries for Instacart, he joined a small army of colleagues in the area he may never meet.

You can spot them by their uniform, a lanyard around the neck, sometimes a T-shirt: green for Instacart, blue for Amazon Prime Now. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) And by the way they constantly stare at product details on smartphones as they attempt to do other people’s grocery shopping for them.

They are folks like Moe Ali, 27, a tile salesman who can’t sell tiles during a quarantine but still needs to provide for himself and his wife, who is a student. Angelique Thornton, a 24-year-old with thyroid cancer who lives with her elderly grandparents. (“I’m extremely nervous,” Thornton said.)

Nina Makel, 32, a mother of four who estimates she has been working 60 hours a week lately – mostly at a Whole Foods that has more shoppers-for-hire than regular customers these days. And Phyllis Greenhow, a woman in her 50s whose immune system is compromised because of kidney problems and a recent heart attack.

She is giving half of her Instacart earnings to a friend who got laid off from a pizza parlour. Greenhow’s adult daughter wants her to stop but is not winning that argument. “I am one of these people that believes God has me,” Greenhow explained.

Some of Gillette’s new colleagues joined a one-day nationwide strike of people working for Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods last week. The workers, who do deliveries or fulfill orders in warehouses, demanded increased hazard pay and safer conditions. The strike succeeded in garnering national attention and some concessions from the companies, though many workers say they still don’t feel safe.