In late October, Ashley Johnson, a single mom and seasoned gig worker in a quiet Seattle suburb, tweeted about the decline of lucrative work on Shipt, the Target-owned grocery delivery app.
“Shipt has taken the […] model of hiring so many shoppers per area that those of us who have given our blood, sweat, and tears can no longer even get orders unless we pre schedule shifts. I haven’t had an order in WEEKS. WEEKS. I’m hungry, shipt,” Johnson wrote. “I went from making $200 a week with shipt to making $0-25.”
Last year, Shipt flooded its markets with new workers and began rolling out an algorithmic pay model in certain cities, like Seattle, that many workers say has left them scrambling to piece together gigs and took a chunk out of their paychecks, as Gizmodo reported.
An hour after tweeting, Johnson received an email from Shipt telling her that she had been “deactivated” and was not “eligible to reapply” for her job, according to an email reviewed by Motherboard. The letter provided no explanation for her removal from the app. (On gig economy apps like Uber and the like, “deactivation” is the same thing as getting fired.)
We don’t know why Shipt deactivated Johnson’s account, but the company has a track record of censoring and retaliating against workers for asking basic questions about their working conditions or expressing dissent. In particular, on its official national Facebook group, known as the Shipt Shopper Lounge, which has more than 100,000 members, Shipt moderators selected by the company frequently censor and remove posts, turn off comments sections, and ban workers who speak out about their working conditions, according to screenshots, interviews, and other documentation provided to Motherboard. The same is true on local Facebook groups, which Shipt also monitors closely, according to workers.
Motherboard spoke to seven current Shipt workers, each of whom described a culture of retaliation, fear, and censorship online. They told Motherboard that posts asking for advice on getting higher tips and how to avoid liabilities on the job never get approved by moderators.
According to the Facebook group’s “About” page, the shopper lounge, is intended to be a “helpful community for all Shipt shoppers.” But workers lament censorship online and joke about their First Amendment rights. “The last post I commented on got deleted…I’m not even from the U.S. but I know we all have freedom of speech here, right?,” one worker wrote in a non-company controlled Facebook group where workers complained about censorship.
One of these workers, who lives in a Midwestern city, and asked to remain anonymous due to fear they would be retaliated against, said they were deactivated in early February after writing a comment on a post announcing the new corporate logo, a green shopping bag.
“No one actually knows what gets you deactivated. They never tell you. It’s like you’re always walking on eggshells.”
They had criticized the new design, and later that day received two emails within 15 minutes of each other. One was from a Shipt social media specialist informing them they had been suspended from the Facebook group; another, also from Shipt, said they had been deactivated.
After the worker shot off a series of emails to Shipt and threatened a lawsuit, they said, the company followed up to tell them that their deactivation had been a mistake: Signing off as “Shopper Success,” a representative for the company said it wrongly took their post to be “inappropriate” and “discriminatory,” and would reverse its decision. But the worker was still shaken. “What they did was wrong. They can’t go around firing people,” the Shipt worker told Motherboard.
According to workers and emails reviewed by Motherboard, Shipt never provides explanations for why workers are deactivated.
“No one actually knows what gets you deactivated. They never tell you,” Willy Solis, a Shipt worker in the Dallas area, said. “It’s like you’re always walking on eggshells.”
“If something rubs people the wrong way, it gets deleted,” Michael, another Shipt worker who works as a security guard by day on the Gulf Coast and asked to use his first name only because he feared retaliation, told Motherboard. “The Facebook group is supposed to be a resource of information to help workers. But if you say something, someone doesn’t like—a Shipt moderator just removes the thread, or removes you from the lounge.”
He said he was kicked out of his local Facebook group, also moderated by Shipt, for arguing with a moderator about a comment he made about the demise of good paying gigs on the app. “I got honest and made some comments about not working the regular schedule anymore, and then me and one of the moderators got into a pissing match,” Michael said. “It took me a couple days to realize I had been banned from the group.”
“Shipt’s official social channels exist as a supportive online community and shoppers are asked not to post inflammatory, rude, insulting, attacking, trolling or threatening posts or comments,” a Shipt spokesperson told Motherboard when asked about censorship and deactivations on social media. “Shipt, however, does not make deactivation decisions based on shopper feedback consistent with those guidelines. We do have written agreements with all shoppers that outline possible causes for deactivation including consistent performance issues resulting in a poor customer experience or unlawful behavior.”
Shipt, a major rival of the grocery delivery platform Instacart, was founded in Birmingham, Alabama. The app launched in 2014 and got its foothold smaller cities in the South and Midwest before spreading to coastal metro areas like Seattle and Washington DC. (Because of Instacart’s hold on San Francisco, the app is not popular in Silicon Valley.)
When Target bought the company for $550 million in 2017, Shipt rapidly expanded its same-day delivery to half of its stores. Today, Shipt has more than 100,000 gig workers, according to the company. The company has tripled its geographic reach since 2017.
Shipt workers told Motherboard that customers who order from Target often seem surprised when independent contractors in plain clothes driving their personal cars show up at their homes with massive deliveries from Target. Because Shipt classifies its workers as contractors, not employees, workers pay for all of their expenses—including gas, wear and tear on their cars, and accidents—out of pocket. They say the tips on large orders from Target, sometimes with hundreds of items, can be meager.
Workers say Shipt customers often live in gated and upscale communities and that the app encourages workers to tack on gifts like thank you cards, hot cocoa, flowers, and balloons onto orders (paid for out of their own pocket) and to offer to walk customer’s dogs and take out their trash, as a courtesy. Shipt calls this kind of service “Bringing the Magic,” which can improve workers’ ratings from customers that factor into the algorithm that determines who gets offered the most lucrative orders.
“If you say you want to create a post [on the Facebook group], it has to be approved by a moderator and they never approve anything except for the super syrupy stuff,” said Solis, the Shipt shopper in the Dallas area. “People show off giving customers balloons. A lot of over the top things. It creates a false sense of what to expect. It sets up other shoppers to look bad if they don’t do those things, and we’re not even employees.”
One of the four rules on the Facebook group is to avoid “venting”: “Everyone needs to vent every now and then, but let’s keep that between you and your friends. While we definitely appreciate feedback and have a whole forum dedicated to sharing feedback, we are successful because we maximize and focus on the positive!”
“Any time people say things that are important, they are shut down,” said Solis. “You have to make Shipt look good and say all the happy things.” Solis told Motherboard that his comment was removed from the national Facebook group when he commented on a photo of a worker walking a customer’s dog, saying doing so as an independent contractor could present a liability to the worker.
In February, other workers also posted complaints about Shipt’s new logo announcement on the Facebook group. One worker commented: “I don’t think no one cares about the new logo no offense. What’s going on with the pay system and tips?” Shortly thereafter, a Shipt moderator shut down the comments section, according to a screenshot Motherboard obtained.
One of the biggest causes for concern among workers, as of late, has been the switch from a clear, commission-based pay model ($5 plus a 7.5 percent commission on all orders) to a new model that “take estimated shop time, substitutions, street traffic, and estimated travel time into consideration,” according to emails provided to Motherboard. But, similar to other gig economy apps like Instacart, Shipt does not tell workers how each of these factors is weighted, causing concern that Shipt could tinker with pay whenever it wants, resulting in significantly lower earnings over time. Workers in some markets say their pay has already dropped by 40 to 50 percent, according to Gizmodo.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, one of the markets where the new pay model rolled out in January, shoppers say their pay has dropped significantly.
“Our best estimate is that payouts are now 30 percent less, and up to 50 percent on orders,” one Shipt worker in Kalamazoo with two years under her belt, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Motherboard. “I fluctuate between extreme anger and despair. It’s been three weeks since this has been implemented, and one of my good friends told me that she’s down the equivalent of a car payment.”
“I fluctuate between extreme anger and despair. It’s been three weeks since this has been implemented, and one of my good friends told me that she’s down the equivalent of a car payment.”
Another Shipt worker in Palm Springs, California provided Motherboard with receipts for a 181-item order that included six Snapple cases, five La Croix cases, and 12 packs of soda. They had to wheel three shopping carts out of a Ralph’s grocery store and deliver them —and earned $12.68 for the job. The customer did not tip. (Under the older, more transparent pay model, they would have earned $44.19.) “That’s a real slap in the face,” they told Motherboard.
When asked about the new pay model, a spokesperson for Shipt told Motherboard that it could not go into detail about the specific markets where the changes had been rolled out, but claimed that pay was constant if not higher in these new markets.
“Our goal is to maximize our shoppers’ earning potential and ensure they get the best value for their time,” the spokesperson said. “We are testing a new pay structure in select markets to better account for the time it takes to complete and deliver an order, including regional factors like drive time.”
Many Shipt shoppers say they were initially drawn to the app because of its friendly marketing and commission-based pay. But with the new lack of transparency, many are realizing that working for the app is no longer worth it.
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“I was actually quite a cheerleader for Shipt for a while compared to Instacart. It puts on a happier face,” said Johnson, the worker who was deactivated after tweeting about her working conditions. “But my deactivation felt really petty. It was really frustrating to work super hard for them, filling 200-pound orders across three cities and getting good ratings, and then have this happen. If they’re going to pay low, that’s what they’re going to do. I just wish they’d be more transparent about it.”
“I used to tell my friends and family members that Shipt was so great,” said Solis, the Dallas worker. “But I can’t rely on the platform anymore. They stamp out resistance by flooding the market with new workers […] and they’re actively monitoring all the social media groups. That’s why everyone wants to be anonymous. We’re going to be deactivated if we speak out.”