This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Michelle Balzer, an Instacart driver in Seattle. Balzer was among those who advocated for PayUp, a series of bills Seattle’s city council passed meant to protect gig workers. One of the laws, which requires companies such as Instacart to pay contractors the equivalent of the city’s $19.97-an-hour minimum wage, took effect on January 13.
Business Insider has verified Balzer’s employment and identity. The story has been edited for length and clarity.
I am a licensed addiction counselor, and that’s what I’ve been doing since 2012. I had just left a job around January 2020 and was going to start a new one, but then the pandemic hit, and many agencies shut down.
I started working for Instacart that year, but I was just getting my feet wet. In 2021, I went all in. My sister was a foster mom, and I liked the flexibility of being able to work and spend time with her kids on my schedule.
I got involved in PayUp right away. I’m in a Facebook group for gig workers in the Pacific Northwest, and if you ever talk to people in the group and read the posts, they’re like, “Don’t bank on this for your own employment.” I started commenting on some posts and got invited to a meeting for people organizing around PayUp. I’m a fighter for just things, and so it wasn’t hard to sell me on being part of it.
I recognize the difficult position gig companies are in. Instacart has 600,000 shoppers. Can they feasibly pay 600,000 shoppers and bring them on as employees? I don’t think that’s realistic, as deep as their pockets are. But does that mean they get to pay us the equivalent of $2 an hour? No. There had to be some kind of happy medium.
The way that PayUp has rolled out, the money coming in now is insane. The batch pay used to be $10, and now it’s $90.
There are some trade-offs. Instacart has set the default tip to 0% when customers check out online — it used to be 5%. Shoppers have to get a weekly paycheck instead of cashing out instantly. If you are in Seattle, you will never be able to accept an order outside Seattle’s city limits. I feel like Instacart got tedious and a bit punitive with the rules.
Since PayUp has started, I’ve seen a lot of people post about the crappy tips. And part of me goes, “Tips are meant to subsidize income. You’re getting a livable wage.”
I think that we in Seattle paved the way with PayUp. Our goal now as a campaign is to go statewide and find someone to take this to the floor of the Washington state legislature.
But there are still problems. Instacart deactivated my account in January because a customer claimed I chipped some concrete on her driveway with my car. But Instacart support said that once I provided proof of resolution, either with the customer or with my insurance, they would reactivate my account.
Weeks later, my insurance emailed them to let them know this incident was resolved, but Instacart still hasn’t reactivated me. I’m considering filing for arbitration — I don’t know what else to do.
Last year, Seattle passed a law that would give us 14 days of notice before we get deactivated and require us to speak to a human representative about our case instead of just getting automated messages, but it doesn’t take effect until 2025.
More than the money, this is probably the most important aspect of this ordinance. It’s a right that we should be able to advocate for ourselves and our treatment. People need to be able to fight for what they need to survive.