If you believe Instacart, the hundreds of thousands of “shoppers” who fulfill its customers’ orders are not full-time employees. Sure, shoppers tell of working 50-hour weeks or more, and, yes, the company’s algorithms encourage shoppers to work more hours to receive more orders. But they’re not full-time employees, insists the company, since that would require a minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation and other inconveniences to Instacart’s bottom line. So the company, along with other “gig economy” behemoths such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, spent millions to help pass Proposition 22 in California last month, which protected those employees’ status as “contract workers.”

But now, with coronavirus vaccines on the way and money to be made, these companies are singing a different tune. Axios reports that Instacart has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as all 50 states, to classify its workers as “essential” and receive early access to vaccines. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have made similar requests.

To be clear, the workers themselves absolutely should be given priority for vaccines. Ride-hailing drivers, delivery people and personal shoppers are all on the pandemic front lines. Instacart shoppers, for example, are literally being paid to risk their health at grocery stores. So they deserve protection.

The companies’ double standards, on the other hand, are ridiculous. Just last year, Uber was arguing that “drivers’ work is outside the usual course of Uber’s business.” Now it wants the CDC to recognize that “rideshare drivers and delivery people have been providing an essential service” — quite the turnaround. The proactive approach to vaccines is also a marked shift from these companies’ past approach to worker health and safety. Instacart, for example, has faced multiple worker actions over its practices, providing only basics such as hand sanitizer after workers demanded them. The company began to offer paid sick leave in March, but many workers reported difficulties obtaining approval before the company made changes to the policy in the summer — problems that, as Human Rights Watch pointed out, “would have been avoided if workers were guaranteed paid sick leave from the outset.”

It’s clear why these companies are reversing course, and it isn’t out of the goodness of executives’ hearts. For DoorDash and Instacart, the pandemic has been a massive boon. With restaurants shuttered and grocery stores a risky option for millions of elderly and immunocompromised Americans, the more drivers and shoppers these companies can get vaccinated, the better. For Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, a vaccinated workforce would help the companies get a jump-start as the country reopens, with mass transit in many cities reduced.

But their hypocrisy has real consequences: One complicating factor in the companies’ request for vaccine priority is their refusal to treat workers as employees. Regulators won’t be able to quickly categorize all “rideshare drivers” the same way one categorizes, say, “health-care workers,” precisely because Uber and Lyft have fought for years to avoid that. So even if these companies’ requests are approved, the rollout will probably be less than smooth.

What makes this all even more galling is that these business models, which rely on the legal system’s tardiness in catching up with the “gig economy,” barely work in the first place. Neither Instacart nor DoorDash made profits until a once-in-a-century pandemic. DoorDash even managed to lose money in the third quarter this year; no wonder the company is already looking to link up with other delivery businesses, inking a deal with CVS this summer.

Uber and Lyft continue to burn through investors’ cash with heavily subsidized rides, while drivers make a pittance, with all of us often picking up the tab when it comes to those missing benefits. It’s long past time to end this charade and treat these workers with the respect — and the pay and the benefits — they deserve.

*By James Downie, Washington Post*