In early 2019, Kevin, a 23-year-old college student studying TV production, signed up to deliver packages for an Amazon subcontractor on the westside of Los Angeles. With the exception of the holidays and the week leading up to Amazon Prime Day in July, Kevin said his job was manageable. On normal days, he delivered 180 packages in a 10 hour shift.
But, in mid-March, when both the state of California and city of Los Angeles issued “stay-at-home” orders to curb the spread of Covid-19, hundreds of homebound Americans turned to Amazon for basic supplies (or all of their shopping) and Kevin’s daily quota leapt to more than 300 packages a day.
His 10-hour shifts stretched on for 12 or even 13 hours. He chugged Red Bull to stay awake and skipped paid breaks, feeling pressure to finish. Meanwhile, he says his managers repeatedly denied his requests for time off, and a dispatcher ignored his multiple pleas for assistance when he had stinging pains in his stomach in the middle of a shift. By late May, the fatigue and back pain triggered by the onslaught of packages became unbearable, and he quit.
“[Our contractor] told us our workload would be decreasing because of Coronavirus, but it got way worse. I ached everywhere. It killed me,” Kevin told Motherboard after quitting. “At the end of my shifts, I was coming into the delivery station with my eyes closing on the freeway. It’s a system that is designed to make you fail.”
Although skyrocketing quotas have made conditions for Amazon’s roughly 75,000 delivery drivers grueling and dangerous, the plight of these workers has largely been overshadowed by that of Amazon’s warehouse workforce, which has understandably received loads of attention from the mainstream news outlets during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Delivery drivers have been sidelined, at least in part, because many of them aren’t even employed by Amazon. In addition to UPS and the US Postal service, the e-commerce giant relies on at least 800 companies, known as “delivery service partners,” to manage the roughly 75,000 drivers who deliver its packages, according to data from late 2019. These workers are technically employed by small companies with no name recognition. But Amazon still retains control over their working conditions. Quotas and routes are often determined by Amazon, and Amazon software surveills daily progress. Drivers wear Amazon-emblazoned shirts, and many drive vans marked with Amazon’s corporate logo. Amazon also mandates that its delivery service partners operate no more than 40 vans and employ between 40 and 100 workers.
In 2014, Amazon launched this network of third party delivery contractors in order to curb its reliance on UPS, USPS, and FedEx, and speed up delivery times. And so far, its expansion has been more than enough to put its competitors on the defensive. In 2015, less than 3 percent of Amazon packages were handled by its contractors, but by 2019 analysts estimate that number jumped to 23 percent. In a brochure, Amazon markets its delivery service partners program to “entrepreneurs” and “customer-obsessed people,” offering people who want to start a small Amazon package delivery company the opportunity to earn up to $4.5 million in revenue and $300,000 in profit annually. “Launching a business becomes that much easier with Amazon’s delivery volume and resources behind you,” the brochure reads.
“It’s a very punishing culture. It’s not like ‘let’s help you improve.’ I have termination conversations every day.”
But last-mile delivery, as has been widely noted, is the most expensive part of e-commerce logistics. And hiring contractors allows Amazon both to dodge liability for its last mile delivery workers, and to expand and reduce its workforce at its convenience.
“Amazon tends to treat its workers as a contingent commodity, and having a contracted delivery workforce makes that even easier,” said Daniel Flaming, author of the 2019 report Too Big To Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store. “It would be difficult for Amazon to sever its relationship with direct employees of Amazon. But the current set up enables Amazon to work with one delivery service partner one day and not the next day and to move from place to place and to expand rapidly. The pandemic has been a period of enormous growth for Amazon.”
(Amazon also relies on contracted gig workers on its app Amazon Flex. These workers drive their own personal vehicles to deliver packages.)
“Amazon is raising the quotas. Off-peak season you had drivers delivering 120-150 packages a day. Now you’re looking at drivers being asked to deliver more than 300 packages in the same amount of time,” Adam Diaz, the director of organizing at the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a labor organization that advocates for Amazon warehouse workers and delivery contractors in southern California, told Motherboard.
“But folks are human beings,” Diaz continued. “I don’t know how you can squeeze in more productivity unless workers miss legally-mandated rest periods, drive faster, and use the bathroom in their vans.”
Motherboard spoke to five workers and one manager who work for Amazon delivery contractors in California, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. All of the workers, except for one, said their workloads had dramatically increased during the pandemic, in some cases more than doubling their quotas—and in turn putting their health and safety at risk. Because Amazon’s delivery service partners employ so few people and have been known to retaliate against workers, Motherboard agreed to give workers pseudonyms and keep their direct employers anonymous, and spoke to them largely about systemic issues they believe are caused by Amazon, not their direct employers. Motherboard independently verified that they are current Amazon delivery drivers or have recently quit but drove during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As a driver, you’re always at the threat of being fired because you’re replaceable,” Mike, a manager at a delivery service partner at an Amazon delivery station in Pittsburgh, told Motherboard. He said quotas for his drivers who deliver extra-large items, such as TVs and couches, have increased by roughly 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. “It’s a very punishing culture. It’s not like ‘let’s help you improve.’ I have termination conversations every day.”
A spokesperson for Amazon told Motherboard that during the pandemic, many delivery drivers who work routes in high density areas, with apartment buildings for example, have seen their quotas rise, but that the majority of drivers have seen their workload drop.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon and our Delivery Service Partners have helped communities around the world in a way that very few can—delivering critical supplies directly to the doorsteps of people who need them,” a spokesperson for Amazon told Motherboard. “We made several adjustments to our processes during this time to protect our team and ensure operations, including package volume, were not adversely impacted. In fact, during this pandemic more than 70 percent of all delivery routes have ended more than 30 minutes early.”
Amazon’s third-party delivery contracting companies, in cutthroat competition with one another, earn revenue based on whether packages are delivered on time. And as millions of orders flooded Amazon in recent months, it’s undeniable that many delivery contractors have ramped up pressure on drivers to deliver more packages in less time.
Even before the pandemic, Mike said he has had drivers accidentally tear down power lines and reverse into customer’s garages because they’re working under so much pressure. In the latter case, after reviewing video footage, he was instructed to fire the worker.
“Accidents happen. Driver fatigue kicks in. A lot of this punishing of workers comes from pressure from Amazon,” Mike continued. “Amazon shows its delivery service partners that you can make $4.5 million in revenue each year with 40 trucks, but only $300,000 in profit, and they’re quick to take that away from you [if you’re not meeting quotas]. So most managers’ first reaction for someone who’s made a mistake is ‘let’s fire the person. We don’t want to deal with it.’”
Enrico Maniago, an organizer with Warehouse Worker Resource Center, in Ontario, California echoed these concerns, telling Motherboard he has seen delivery service contractors fire and discipline workers during the pandemic who make mistakes, for example, by accidentally locking themselves out of their vans or going over the legal speed limit, to meet newly raised quotas.
In May, Motherboard reported that an Amazon delivery service partner fired a driver in Gary, Indiana who raised concerns about Covid-19 to his employer.
Amazon will not reveal how many accidents involving its delivery contractors have resulted in death, but a 2019 ProPublica investigation identified more than 60 accidents causing serious injuries since 2015, 10 of which ended in death, including that of a nine month old baby in Maine last year. The report notes that this number is likely a fraction of the total fatalities, given that most people do not sue, and Amazon can hide behind its contractors.
“You would think with them knowing that we are working more hours [and] more stops that we could keep our raise."
For drivers, the dual imperatives of working as quickly as possible and abiding by traffic laws and other safety rules requires a level of vigilance from drivers that tends to decline after hours on the road, they said.
“I either have to sacrifice safety or my productivity. It’s not possible to keep both. We all know seat belts are important for our safety, but it’s easier to buckle your seatbelt and not wear it,” Jorge told Motherboard. “It’s a second to cut off the time it takes to complete our routes, and one second is a lot of time for us.”
Maria, another Amazon delivery driver, in the Los Angeles area, told Motherboard in early June that she knew quotas were getting out of hand because more and more of her coworkers stopped taking their lunch breaks, although she, personally, refused to.
“Guys will pee in a water bottle. But I can’t do that,” she said. “When this outbreak occurred, I found myself holding pee for hours, which is really bad for our bladders. It was getting to be too much, and I told my manager I refuse to work through lunch break.”
In mid-May, Amazon announced that it would end its $2 hazard pay and unlimited unpaid leave policy enacted in March for its employees and contractors. At the same time Covid-19 outbreaks showed no signs of stopping in Amazon warehouses and experts have warned that many more people would fall ill and die. At least nine Amazon warehouse workers have died from Coronavirus.
“You would think with them knowing that we are working more hours [and] more stops that we could keep our raise,” Diane, a contracted delivery driver at DSC3, an Amazon delivery station in Greenville, South Carolina, told Motherboard. “None of us are taking our lunch breaks anymore, because we’re all running behind.”
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Although cities and states have begun to reopen retail businesses, several contracted Amazon delivery drivers told Motherboard that they continued to see their quotas increase in May and June.
“Demand seems to have picked up a lot recently. I have a steady 315 packages a day this past week, ” Jorge, a contracted delivery driver for Amazon, wrote in a text message in mid-June to Motherboard, adding that increased deliveries for new or irregular Amazon customers and constantly changing routes has meant lots of time spent trying to access new buildings, and buzzing into residences with outdated codes.
“What keeps me here is that I’m desperate. This is my only option right now, even though I have a college degree,” Jorge said. “I feel really exploited and cheated working here because they’re taking advantage of this crisis to make millions and give us pennies for a tremendous amount of work.”