On January 14, the owner of an Amazon delivery fleet in the Midwest spent more than $1,000 towing four Amazon delivery vans from the snow during a nasty winter blizzard.
“When there are winter storms, we have a lot of vans that get stuck, which is not paid for by Amazon,” the owner told Motherboard, noting that he’s had vans get stuck in dirt roads, driveways, and once a cornfield that Amazon’s GPS system marked as a road. “Our drivers are all out on the road during the storm and Amazon tries to get you to push your drivers as much as possible. It’s a major safety issue.”
Motherboard spoke to three other current and former owners of Amazon delivery companies who said that in the winter months, they frequently call tow trucks to rescue Amazon delivery vans and drivers that get stuck in the snow. While it’s common for cars to get stuck in the snow during the winter months, Amazon delivery company owners said that the vans they’re required to use are particularly prone to this problem, and that they have to spend thousands of dollars out of their own pocket towing them out. Amazon relies on more than 2,000 small delivery companies around the United States, known as Amazon delivery service partners, to deliver its packages in Amazon vans from last mile Amazon delivery stations to customer’s homes.
“I use a high powered pick up truck to pull drivers an average of 2x a week,” an Amazon delivery company owner in Virginia who bought his own tow truck wrote to Motherboard. The truck cost him $140,000.
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While Amazon pays its delivery companies an hourly rate per route and per package delivered, expenses such as extra training for drivers, repairs for damages to vehicles, tow-outs and winch outs, and other gear and protection against extreme weather come directly out of the pockets of delivery companies.
“Amazon provides little to no roadside services and it’s basically up to the individual stations to try and get permission/funds for any regional/weather specific needs,” an Amazon program trainer in the delivery service partner program told Motherboard.
“Most of [Amazon’s] station leadership has so much on their plate already that they just throw their hands up and leave it to the [Amazon delivery service partners] to figure out,” they continued. Amazon station leaders are delivery company owners’ main point of contact at Amazon.
During extreme weather, it is usually up to delivery companies to cancel routes, and call their drivers back into safety, but if Amazon doesn’t believe that the conditions are dangerous enough, Amazon delivery companies say they can be punished for repeatedly returning undelivered packages to the Amazon delivery station.
Maria Boschetti, a spokesperson for Amazon denied this allegation saying in the event of extreme weather, Amazon excludes packages for that day from counting toward performance metrics. “We’re committed to the safety of drivers and the communities where we deliver, and it’s inaccurate to say that we punish DSPs for refusing to work in inclement weather,” she said. “[Delivery service partners are always encouraged to make the right decision for their teams and we often proactively work with them to temporarily suspend or adjust operations in response to inclement weather.”
The owners of Amazon delivery companies say that Amazon has little incentive to cancel routes during extreme weather because they’re not liable for drivers or van damages in the case of an accident.
“Amazon puts it on us to decide what’s unsafe,” an Amazon delivery company owner near Virginia Beach, Virginia told Motherboard. “Amazon won’t call it. They want you to be liable.”
The owner of an Amazon delivery company in Washington state told Motherboard that he had five vans get stuck in the snow that had to be towed between December 27 and 28 of last year.
“It’s a minimum $300 from tow companies, and drivers are waiting three to four hours, stranded there the whole time. It’s horrible because it’s dangerous,” the owner said. “Drivers are stuck in snow on the ground where by definition temperatures are below freezing. No water, food, just what they brought with them. These drivers aren’t well compensated, in areas near Seattle, they don’t have snow pants, cold weather gloves, and the PPE you would need. We’re saying ‘stay in the van, keep heat running and we try to get someone out as soon as possible.’ It’s not a good circumstance to be in.”
Several owners of Amazon delivery companies say Amazon’s delivery vans get stuck in the snow frequently for two reasons: First, the owners Motherboard spoke to said the delivery vans that Amazon makes available to them—among them, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the Ram ProMaster, and the Ford Transit—are only available to companies in two-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive, that is) and not ideal for driving in the snow. Experts say rear-wheel drive is the worst configuration for driving in snow—and doing so requires more finesse from the driver.
“Amazon requires us to have those leases on those vans,” said the owner of the Amazon delivery company in the Midwest. “We don’t get to choose those assets. If I could, I would go out and find all-wheel-drive vans so my drivers would be safer on the road. We have drivers out there sliding through stop signs.”
Second, drivers receive minimal training from Amazon before they’re expected to start driving their own shifts and are under pressure to work as quickly as possible: just two days of virtual training and a few hours driving around cones in a parking lot. (UPS drivers complete a rigorous five-to-nine day course that includes on-road training before they begin delivery routes.) In the winter months, shifts often extend many hours past dusk. If drivers don’t finish their delivery quotas for the day, they won’t qualify for bonuses, or could be terminated.
“Amazon does not do on-the-road training,” said the Amazon delivery company owner in Washington. “Drivers are going out there with no snow driving experience.”
“[Drivers] get stuck because they aren't properly trained. Drivers feel pressured to get the job done. You feel like a failure when you don’t complete your workload. Nobody wants to go home feeling like a failure,” they said. “These drivers push themselves and they get stuck.”
For some Amazon delivery companies, tows are such a giant expense, they’ve invested in their own trucks and winches to do tow outs.
“We purchased an H2 Hummer to help pull vehicles out as well as 4 AWD Ford Transits to use to help pull out and run in the really bad areas,” a former Amazon delivery company owner in Oregon wrote to Motherboard.
“If there’s one tow out, I don’t make money that day. Many days I don’t make a profit because of [tow outs]. Dozens of days annually,” the delivery company owner in the Midwest, said. ”It’s not just me. I speak for everyone when I say that.”