What it’s like delivering other people’s groceries during COVID-19

TVO.org speaks with a lifelong professional cook about the rewards and pressures of driving for a grocery-delivery service
By Corey Mintz - Published on Jun 10, 2020
During COVID-19, many are turning to grocery-delivery services. (iStock/yulkapopkova)



In the last few months, the way we gather food has radically changed. Whether you’re shopping for groceries in store or online, stockpiling beans or growing your own lettuce, chances are this global pandemic has altered your behaviour.

Our neighbourhood supermarket has been doing its best to protect staff and limit customer volume. But it’s no 40,000-square-foot suburban supermarket — the aisles are too narrow for shoppers to pass one other at a safe distance. It has had to shut down temporarily when staff members tested positive for COVID-19. I’ve had pneumonia twice in the last few years, so I’ve switched to buying food online.

There are plenty of options for getting food beyond the grocery store. Many are costly, but not all. For example, the produce box from Foodshare is great value, and it supports a fantastic food-security organization. Instacart, a service that subcontracts people to pick up groceries, offers a lot of convenience. But between the fees, plus tip — it may be optional, but I would argue it is absolutely essential given that a human being is sticking their neck out for you — it’s expensive. And Loblaws does not need our money.

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This has been a good opportunity to directly support smaller businesses, such as the many Ontario farmers who have developed pick-up and delivery services. We found a catering company that’s pivoted to groceries and a farm in Owen Sound that does a drop-off on Saturday mornings not far from our home. But, at the end of the day, and many times throughout each day, we need diapers. And Loblaws, via Instacart, is at least slightly less evil than Amazon (it’s a “Doctor Doom vs. Doctor Octopus”-type comparison).

We’ve gotten a few Instacart orders. Earlier in the quarantine, I was in touch with Peter Faist, founder of Staffy, an app platform that facilitates temporary employment for hospitality (like an Uber for restaurant workers). It’s managed to transition a lot of people to work in health care and food delivery, where demand is up. Faist connected me with Bill (whose name has been changed to protect him from potential reprisals), a lifelong professional cook who is now driving for Instacart, about what it’s like right now delivering other people’s groceries.

TVO.org: Most consumers know how online groceries work for them. How does it work from your end?

Bill: I don’t know how it works from the consumer side. All I know is the shopper’s side. The worker’s side. It’s not bad. You sign up; you wait for paraphernalia to come in the mail — your badge, your credit card. The card has no limit on it. You charge the groceries, and they pay you. You can check the app on your phone to see how much money you’ve made.

TVO.org: And how are you compensated?

Bill: You get the Instacart payment, plus the mileage from the store to their house. It’s 40 cents a kilometre, roughly. And then the tip is added in on top of that.

TVO.org: Do you get 100 per cent of that tip?

Bill: Yes. Depending on if you have to refund anything, it affects your tip. The customer has two weeks to change their mind on the tip. I do this, and I do DoorDash, too.

TVO.org: Are you doing them concurrently?

Bill: No. I do DoorDash usually at night, because Instacart slows down to almost nothing. It’s hit or miss. There are too many people, so we’re fighting over orders.

TVO.org: Do you stick to a zone?

Bill: It depends. I live in Burlington, so I try to stay in the Burlington area. But I get Stoney Creek, Hamilton, Grimsby. And I try not to go down there, because I don’t know what the store is like, and I don’t know the layout of the store. Most of these Instacart orders come from Walmart or Fortinos. Occasionally, there’s Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart, Bulk Barn. But, most of the time, it’s Fortinos and Walmart. And I don’t really shop in a Wal-Mart.

TVO.org: Is your concern about not knowing the stores related to efficiency or safety?

Bill: Both. If you don’t know where anything is, it’s like going in blind.

TVO.org: What did you do before this?

Bill: I work at the University of Toronto for Compass [a global food-service operation]. I’m a supervisor.

TVO.org: How many years have you been cooking?

Bill: Forty-five. I’ll be 57 in August. I started at home when I was 12.

TVO.org: What was your first cooking job?

Bill: The United States Navy. I’m originally from the States and a 22-year vet.

TVO.org: What made you enlist?

Bill: When I was in high-school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a guidance counsellor who was breaking my balls to go to college. I said I don’t know what I want to study. I checked out the Army recruiter and Navy recruiter. My father spent time during the Korean War in the Navy. It was a natural progression. I wanted to do something unique. I could cook. So why not? I did basic training in Orlando, went to cooking school in San Diego. My first ship, we had a crew of 600. And we carried 1,500 to 2,000 marines. So you cook for a lot of people. I’ve done 15,000 a day.

TVO.org: What brought you to Canada?

Bill: I met my wife here. My wife is from the Philippines. She immigrated here in 2006. She was in Oakville. She works at Ford. In the plant. With the cleaning company.

TVO.org: Are you collecting a military pension?

Bill: I changed branches of the military in 2000. I went into the Air Force reserves as an intelligence analyst. I won’t get my retirement pay until I turn 60 in 2023. That money would be nice right now. It’d be great. Somebody asked me if I’m collecting CERB, and I said no, I’m not putting myself into tax hell.

TVO.org: You expect you’d be audited?

Bill: It’s not that. They’re going to want the money back. Like all governments.

TVO.org: How much of your usual income are you able to make right now?

Bill: I’m collecting EI, and I’m doing this. What EI pays me and this is paying me is basically bringing me back to where I was.

TVO.org: How are you able to collect EI while you’re doing this work?

Bill: I don’t tell them. And it won’t be reported until the end of the year.

TVO.org: But don’t you run the risk of getting audited then?

Bill: Fine. I get audited. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like I’m the only person that’s doing it. I’ll get a T4 from Instacart and DoorDash. And then I’ll figure it out from there. The only part they’re going to tax me on is the non-tip part of it.

TVO.org: How much of your income is tips?

Bill: Fifty per cent.

TVO.org: How much do most people tip?

Bill: It depends. I’ve gotten cash tips on top of regular tips. People thanking me because we’re on the front line. I’ve gotten no tip a couple of times. I can deal with that, because I’m being paid to pick up groceries.

TVO.org: You’ve been cooking your whole life. Do you like this driving work?

Bill: I’m my own boss. I can choose where I want to go. I’ve only done one three-house batch. You get three orders in one. And I’ll never do it again.

TVO.org: Does it all come on the same order?

Bill: Correct. Instacart will send our orders. If there’s a couple of smaller ones that are ordering from the same store, they’ll group them together. It’s very hard to separate the orders. You pay for it separately, and you deliver it separately. The most I’ll do is two. And when I go to Walmart, I’ll only do one. Because you can’t divide the carriage because it doesn’t have the two layers like Fortinos does. That’s what I like about Fortinos. You can separate the two orders.

TVO.org: Is this your first work with Staffy?

Bill: I did two jobs with Staffy. I was impressed with the operation. On January 1, I worked at a retirement home in Scarborough. And my second one was in Mississauga. The only problem is, I’m in Burlington, so it’s hard to get work down here on a consistent basis. They kept sending me leads for Ottawa and elsewhere in Ontario for retirement homes. But the caveat was they had COVID-19 detected on the premises. I said I can’t do it. I have my 89-year-old mother here. I’m not killing her. It’s enough I have to worry about myself. I have to worry about my entire family.

TVO.org: In March, how did your work wind down as campus closed?

Bill: I was miffed. As a chef and food-service professional, if you maintain personal hygiene and wash your hands on a consistent basis, you’re not going to get sick.

TVO.org: Unless you’re indoors in proximity to other people.

Bill: I tried wearing a mask, and I found myself touching my face more. So I don’t wear one. I keep my distance from other people.

A spokesperson for Instacart told TVO.org via that its shoppers are provided with masks and are reminded daily (via the app) to wear them in stores and while delivering.

This article has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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