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Instacart answering fewer questions than ever about puzzling drop in shoppers' pay

Instacart shoppers are again questioning whether they're being paid correctly. The grocery delivery giant says it’s all accurate and according to their contracts, but it also no longer shows shoppers a mileage breakdown of their pay, so they have to take the company’s word for it.

Grocery delivery company witholds pay details, blaming earlier 'confusion'

A white man with short brown hair wearing light coloured jeans, a blue t-shirt, and a dark hoodie sits on the edge of his compact car's trunk, with the hatch open. He is sitting beside two blue cloth shopping bags.
Instacart delivery worker Josh Rigo is one of many who say the company isn’t being transparent about how workers’ pay is calculated. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Josh Rigo of Halifax first thought something was wrong with his Instacart pay after he completed a lengthy delivery trip. Once he subtracted the promised mileage payment — 40 cents per kilometre — from his total, he says there wasn't much left as payment for the shopping he did.

"That amount I got for the kilometres seems to be taking up most of the total," he said. "That doesn't seem right."

Once he started tracking his orders, depending on how much he drove and how many hours he worked per day, he estimated he was shorted anywhere between a couple of dollars to $15 or a little bit more each day.

"And that can add up pretty quick," he told Go Public.

As previously reported by Go Public, Instacart delivery workers reported big earning decreases starting in July 2021. The company said the earnings structure hadn't changed since February 2019, but shoppers couldn't make sense of their plummeting pay.

Instacart delivery workers, which the California-based company calls "shoppers," are guaranteed a minimum $7 for each "batch," or order payment.

"It's already pretty low pay as it is," Rigo said. "And so every dollar counts."

He figured there must be a glitch in the app and reported it to Instacart's online support agents, who provided a more detailed breakdown of his pay.

That's when he noticed his mileage payment was significantly and consistently short, by about 38 per cent. He contacted support agents for weeks asking them to adjust his pay, which they did.

Two screen shots of the Instacart shopper app show a conversation between an employee and a support agent. The exchange is described in the body text of the article.
Screenshots from one of the many online chats between Rigo and Instacart support agents. (Instacart)

His chat with one, above, follows the pattern. He'd travelled 7.4 kilometres for which he was paid $1.84. But at 40 cents per kilometre, Rigo was owed $2.96.

Rigo is not alone. Go Public has again heard from several shoppers across Canada who suspect they've been shorted on their pay, and offered screen shots from their chats with support agents as examples.

The same pattern held: the mileage pay was short. If they subtracted the expected 40 cents per kilometre from their pay they sometimes got less than the minimum $7 per batch.

A cell phone is mounted on the dashboard of a car, showing driving navigation directions. Large older residential buildings are seen through the windshield.
Rigo delivers an Instacart order in Halifax. His pay is partly based on how far he drives for each order. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

But Instacart — a private company valued at $10 billion US — still, over a year after shopper pay complaints began, says there are no pay errors; the app is working exactly as it should. It adds shoppers are told what their total compensation will be before they accept a job.

Asked why, if the pay was accurate, so many support agents made adjustments when shoppers complained, an Instacart spokesperson seemed to suggest those changes were made in error.

Changes to mileage pay are made only in "some instances" the spokesperson said in a statement, adding "we are making further updates to help make sure our Care agents are fully aware of the correct protocols."

Instacart declined an interview request. 

Instacart told Go Public its "payment structure" hasn't changed since February 2019, but when asked whether the actual dollar amounts in shoppers' pockets after each order have gone up or down, the company did not answer.

Instead, it said that overall shopper earnings in Canada "increased at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and have stayed higher than pre-pandemic levels since March 2020."

WATCH | Workers deserve to know breakdown of how they're paid, says lawyer:  

Instacart workers question whether they’re getting paid fairly

1 year ago
Duration 2:01
Instacart shoppers are questioning whether the company is paying them fairly, saying that in Canada they can’t see their full pay details and must take the company's word that they’re being paid the promised rates.

According to Instacart, the problem is that shoppers are confused about how their pay works. The company says part of their mileage money gets counted in the $7 batch minimum.

Go Public asked where that information is communicated to shoppers, and the company pointed to the shoppers' contract, which doesn't clearly spell out how mileage and batch pay are related, but says they will get "payment for each delivery, which takes into account factors such as weight of items, number and types of items, estimated distance and time, and any applicable incentive."

Labour and employment lawyer Sheilagh Turkington isn't surprised so many shoppers are confused.

"You shouldn't have to be a lawyer to figure out what the terms of the agreement are," she said, after reviewing the contract and the shoppers' pay information.

"Would it be reasonable for someone to think that they would get both mileage pay and batch pay… each involving a minimum entitlement? Yes. Yes. I think it would."

A white woman wearing a blue patterned collar shirt under a blue blazer sits in front of a bookshelf filled with black and brown-spined books. Her facial expression is neutral, and she has mid-length brown hair with a pair of glasses perched on top of her head.
Labour and employment lawyer Sheilagh Turkington questions how transparent the company is being with its workers. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

Turkington says Instacart shoppers are disadvantaged because they don't have the same information most Canadians see on their pay stubs: not just the amount earned, but the breakdown of how it was calculated.

"If it's unclear, then how does a worker know they're getting paid fully the entitlement? Or is a worker accepting the work under false pretenses?"

Instacart won't say what proportion of shoppers' mileage pay gets counted toward the batch pay; only that it fluctuates depending on multiple factors specific to each order.

A smiling white man with a short-cropped goatee and glasses is wearing a light grey Instacart sweatshirt and green Instacart-branded baseball hat. He is standing in a kitchen with a wall clock, cupboards, and a microwave oven in the background.
Lucian Mihailescu started suspecting the was a problem with his pay about six months ago and started analyzing his own orders — over 50 of them in recent months. (YouTube)

Lucian Mihailescu of Abbotsford, B.C., doesn't accept this explanation. An Instacart shopper for two years, he loves the work and has a collection of Instacart-branded apparel, which he bought with his own money.

He says Instacart's explanations simply don't square with his data. He's made several videos explaining why, imploring the company to look at the numbers and reconsider its position.

"The total batch [pay] is lower than it was two years ago or even one year ago," he said. 

When Instacart kept insisting there was no error, Mihailescu concluded they must have shrunk the per-item batch pay. In the end, he and other concerned shoppers can only speculate.

Payment details withheld

In December, Instacart acknowledged to shoppers in an online community forum that "the information some of you have been receiving about your earnings has been confusing."

But instead of giving more information, the company started giving less. Now, the support agents aren't allowed to show mileage pay to shoppers as a separate line item.

The company spokesperson said the information was blocked because "the batch pay breakdown that was previously shared by Care agents was causing confusion."

But Mihailescu says this makes things more confusing. "Before, we could ask the customer agents for the breakdown and they could tell us, but now they can't," he said.

When shoppers complained, a company official told them in an online forum on Dec. 16: "I can assure you we have many checks in place to make sure our earnings calculations are always accurate on the back end."

A screen shot from an exchange between an Instacart shopper and an online support agent says: "Unfortunately, I was advised we cant [sic] show you the break down since we are assisting virtually but your pay is correct no more funds will be added. We have GPS on the app and nit tracks the miles you drove you were paid 100% correctly. Upon looking further 72 cents isn't even owed at this time as advised by higher up. I apologize if this is not the outcome you were wanting. Is there anything else I canassist [sic] you with today?" Shopper: "Ok. Please look at the above calculations"
Instacart support agents were told around mid-December to stop telling shoppers what mileage pay they received. (Instacart)

For some shoppers, that assurance rings hollow, given Instacart's history. In 2019, amid accusations of tip theft, Instacart admitted it had been decreasing workers' pay based on the size of their tips.

Then-CEO Apoorva Mehta apologized and promised changes and compensation. 

In October 2021, a statement of claim was filed in Ontario Superior Court by a shopper, alleging the company has failed to make minimum payments to its workers under employment standards legislation. 

That lawsuit also claims that Instacart misclassifies full-service shoppers as independent contractors.

The contractor classification is a big part of the problem says Enda Brophy, an associate professor of communications at Simon Fraser University and an expert on digital gig work.

"Imagine starting a job and the employer saying, 'Welcome to your new job, your rate of pay will be variable, and I won't tell you exactly how we determine it,'" he said.

A smiling white man wearing dark-rimmed glasses leans against a painted brick wall. He is wearing a dark purple collar shirt and a dark hooded zip-up jacket.
Enda Brophy of Simon Fraser University says the Instacart situation gives us 'a view onto a future labour market.' (Julie Lapointe)

"That's basically what companies like Instacart do, except for the fact that they hide behind classifying workers as independent contractors, as a way of pretending that they aren't actually employing these people."

Brophy says that has social implications far beyond Instacart.

"What this case gives us," he said, "is a view onto a future labour market where machines are making incredibly important decisions in the workplace without any transparency or recourse."

In April, Ontario passed legislation, the first of its kind in Canada, to set out workers' rights specific to digital platform gig work.

The new law is not yet in effect, but a spokesperson said the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development is currently developing the regulations.

Ontario's Digital Platform Workers' Rights Act will, among other things, require minimum wage for each work assignment and clear description of how pay is calculated.

But Rigo is disappointed that Instacart hasn't changed its response.

"Show us the algorithm, and show that it's consistent, and then we'll believe you," he said.

"But to just make blanket statements that don't give any details makes it seem like you're still hiding something."

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Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

With files by Jenn Blair