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Meet 2 Workers Who Bring Food To Doorsteps Amid Social Distancing


Many of us - the fortunate ones, let's face it - are staying home, sheltering in place and perhaps ordering in food, delivered, most likely, by a gig worker. Contracting through apps like Postmates and Uber Eats, these essential workers dash food from A to B in the middle of a pandemic and often without full-time benefits - workers like Jeff Kirby. He's an independent contractor who lives in Chicago, and he delivers food by bike.

JEFF KIRBY: For me, it's pretty simple. Either I work, or I have a hard time paying rent. It was a pretty easy decision to just continue and see how things go from day to day and from week to week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What would happen, though, if you got sick and were unable to work? Could you claim unemployment?

KIRBY: Currently, we are able to claim unemployment after the new federal bill. But here in Illinois, they're still working on setting up that system, so it'll be another seven weeks. So if I get sick, I would have to take some medicine and ride it out for a couple weeks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's taking precautions - hand sanitizer after every drop-off, daily bike cleaning. Jeff Kirby says some of the companies he works with have sent cleaning supplies, but he's still without one essential.

KIRBY: I'm waiting on some masks to come in the mail probably this coming week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In western Michigan, outside Grand Rapids, Michaellita Fortier has been filling orders on Instacart, a grocery pickup and delivery app. Fortier had been on the platform last year from March to October.

MICHAELLITA FORTIER: But as the months went on, I saw that they started to pay a lot less for the order. And I decided that it wasn't worth my time, so I stopped.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fast-forward to COVID-19.

FORTIER: I knew that there was going to be a need for us to go out, do the work for those who can't come outside, and that's why I started to do it again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Instacart is on a hiring spree. It's planning on adding 300,000 more gig workers in the next few months to deal with heightened demand. But Fortier says it's still not a lucrative job. She thinks delivery drivers should be eligible for hazard pay. And until this week, she was unable to get personal protective equipment, like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, from the company.

FORTIER: We're out in the stores. We're in the public. We're dealing with customers. There's so many other things that are involved with what we do. And Instacart really hasn't addressed the value of what we're doing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some Instacart shoppers went on strike last week, refusing to accept orders in demand for more protections. Fortier says she opted for a selective approach - only accepting large orders, those with payouts reflective of the time and risk. She says most customers have been gracious. One even left a handwritten message outside the door.

FORTIER: And the note read, Michaellita, thank you for shopping for our family. I am a cancer survivor and don't feel comfortable being in crowds. You are greatly appreciated - the Johnsons. And it made me cry because I can just imagine how people feel if they can't go outside, and they may not have family who can go get groceries for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So gig workers like Michaellita Fortier and Jeff Kirby are out there doing it for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.