Amazon's Last Mile

Illustration: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo
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Who delivers Amazon orders? Increasingly, it’s plainclothes contractors with few labor protections, driving their own cars, competing for shifts on the company’s own Uber-like platform. Though it’s deployed in dozens of cities and associated with one of the world’s biggest companies, government agencies and customers alike are nearly oblivious to the program’s existence.

In terms of size, efficiency, and ruthlessness, Amazon has few equals. The least publicly accountable of the big tech companies—Google, Apple, and Facebook face considerably greater scrutiny—Amazon’s stock is one of the most valuable on the market, it’s among the fastest-growing companies in the United States. Atop its vast empire, CEO Jeff Bezos commands the single largest personal fortune on the planet. Estimates place Amazon as the recipient of approximately one third of all dollars spent online. Control over the manufacture, storage, sales, and shipping of an extraordinarily diverse set of products has led the company to expand into film and TV production, web hosting, publishing, groceries, fashion, space travel, wind farms, and soon, pharmaceuticals, to name just a few. It’s a new kind of company, the likes of which the American economy has never before seen and is legislatively ill-prepared for.

Ingenuity alone doesn’t account for Amazon’s dominant position. The company’s Economic Development Team works hard to secure state and local subsidies, which research from watchdog group Good Jobs First indicates surpasses $1 billion, a figure which the advocacy group’s executive director, Greg LeRoy, freely admitted to Gizmodo is far from comprehensive. Infrastructure in the company’s home base of Seattle has strained to keep pace with Amazon’s meteoric growth, and the city has experienced massive increases in housing costs. While North America’s metro areas—including Seattle—scramble to offer attractive incentives to host Bezos’s second headquarters, research indicates that when Amazon comes to town, it might be killing more jobs than it creates.

The majority of consumers, however, either don’t know or don’t care. Strip Amazon to its most familiar elements, and it’s a devilishly simple everything-store with limitless stuff-supply. You buy it. It shows up. Fast.

Near the very bottom of Amazon’s complicated machinery is a nearly invisible workforce over two years in the making tasked with getting those orders to your doorstep. It’s a network of supposedly self-employed, utterly expendable couriers enrolled in an app-based program which some believe may violate labor laws. That program is called Amazon Flex, and it accomplishes Amazon’s “last-mile” deliveries—the final journey from a local facility to the customer.

While investigating the nature of the program, we spoke to 15 current or former independent drivers across nine states and two countries whose enrollment spanned between a few weeks and two years, as well as three individuals attached to local courier companies delivering for Amazon. Their identities have all been obscured for fear of retribution.

A great opportunity to be your own boss

To understand the issues faced by the independent contractors handling last-mile delivery for Amazon requires some knowledge of how Flex works.

When Amazon selects one of its facilities—what drivers refer to as a Fulfillment Center* (FC)— for participation in Flex, it blankets Craigslist and other sites with local ads describing Flex as “a great opportunity to be your own boss,” sometimes as many as twelve ads a day. Each FC is distinguished by three letters and a number—DLA5, for instance, refers to Riverside, California—and many of the over 50 cities Flex operates in have more than one.

An interested driver goes through a preliminary screening online and finishes their application through the app, passes a background check allegedly administered by a company called Accurate Background. Accurate Background did not respond to multiple requests for comment and Amazon declined to comment on which companies or services it uses for this purpose, but claimed the check pulls from, among other signals, court records, the sex offender registry, and data analysis from US and global organizations. One driver told Gizmodo he was approved in under four hours. Others wait over a month. According to a Flex contract furnished to Gizmodo, the only requirements to entry are modest: be 21 or older, pass Accurate Background’s vetting, own a smartphone with Flex installed, and have access to a car, bike, or public transportation. No company cars. No uniforms. Just a non-photo ID badge.

The training is similarly minimal. One driver attended an optional hour-long training at an FC. A veteran driver alleged he was asked to participate in a conference call. The consistent element reported to Gizmodo was being made to watch approximately 20 videos which fresh Flexers view from the comfort of their phones. “Watch videos of their expectations of you and their rules, agree to the rules,” a Georgia-based driver said. “That’s about it.” No drivers reported being trained on matters of workplace safety, and as one UK-based driver succinctly put it, “honestly it seems they take on anyone.” Amazon declined to describe its Flex driver training except to say that videos were among the materials used in onboarding.

Work is secured by grabbing “blocks” through the app, measured in hours, with an associated route and payout. Flex’s blocks cover multiple local arms of Amazon—including Fresh and Restaurants—but the two most common, based on individual testimony and online posts, are Logistics, which covers standard packages, and Prime Now which handles same-day purchases. Regardless, the procedure is largely the same once a driver lands a block: get in line behind the other cars at the FC, check in, receive a pre-sorted rolling cart or shelf of goods for the route, scan and pack them into the car, then follow the Flex app’s “suggested” driving directions to each stop.

A driver sharing his experience with and tips for Flex on YouTube

Block length and package count vary considerably between Prime Now and Logistics: Prime Now blocks can be as little as two hours, while five hour blocks have reportedly been offered to Logistics drivers with larger vehicles; 15 packages for a slim Prime Now block and as many as 90 on a Logistics run. Amazon’s own Craigslist ads show compensation varies by location, but among the drivers Gizmodo spoke to, pay averaged $20.50/hr—not bad by the standards of the gig economy. And similar to Uber’s “surge pricing” in the rare event that blocks go unclaimed, Amazon will sometimes increase to incentivize drivers to accept it. Still, all but three drivers we spoke to did not consider Flex their primary means of income, and of those who did one also contracts with UberEats and Grubhub, another was seeking additional work, and the third alleged to have been deactivated by Amazon despite delivering through floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

A driver’s view after Irma
A driver’s view after Irma

Arguably Amazon Flex, like Uber, is best used as supplemental income, and for many drivers it works well for that purpose. For others it’s a necessity. In major cities like New York and San Francisco—coincidentally located in the states that employ the largest numbers of couriers—Uber can be a living. Flex can’t.

A difficult road

Despite being able to fulfill hundreds of millions of orders per year, drivers report Amazon’s data at the local level can be lacking, leading to misalignments between block times and package numbers. “The block that I signed up for was four hours, but when I got to the facility they were struggling to find something for me to do, so I only ended up having three packages to deliver,” a driver told Gizmodo of a recent block picked up from a newly-opened FC. But according to a more veteran driver, Amazon’s bad bets cut both ways. “They won’t pay you for working over your allotted block time,” he told Gizmodo. “They said it evens out because when you work a three hour block and finish in two they still pay you for three, but it doesn’t even out.” Another alleged that Amazon’s systems struggle to estimate door-to-door time or handling large apartment buildings, leading to a “99% probability that you will exceed your block end time.”

Additionally, two drivers in completely different regions of the US both claimed Flexers’ hours are capped at 40 hours per week. “As [independent contractors], we should be able to work as much as we wish since we take the blocks we want to work. It used to not be this way when I first started working for them,” the San Antonio-based driver bemoaned. But lately, drivers at a number of FCs have found it harder and harder to secure enough hours for 40 hours to be a meaningful limitation. A Philadelphia-based driver told Gizmodo, “Last year when I started it was easy to secure two four hour blocks a day and I was complaining that they would put us on payroll locks so I wouldn’t exceed 40 hours a week. How times have changed!” Demand for those blocks and the desire to finish them quickly led to what one driver described as “physical fights [...] when someone tries to jump the line.”

Amazon would not comment on whether it caps drivers’ hours, but characterized the program as a part-time opportunity. It claimed, in a statement to Gizmodo, that it “received overwhelmingly positive response[s] from drivers participating in the program.” The company also suggested that workers seeking more traditional full-time arrangements are encouraged to apply elsewhere within Amazon.

The boilerplate did-not-receive email
The boilerplate did-not-receive email

A number of drivers have alleged they’re reprimanded by FC workers if their vehicles are unable to fit all the packages for a block, and fear being “ticketed” for returning packages they weren’t able to deliver. One reported getting written up by one FC employee for following the explicit instructions of another.

While in and of themselves these incidents tend not to have serious repercussions, as little as two incidents have led to drivers being deactivated. Amazon told Gizmodo that it has performance expectations for its contractors which it expects them to meet or exceed, and sometimes those metrics are used to justify a termination. Other times, being notified your time with Amazon Flex has ended comes as a vague boilerplate email about violating the program’s terms of service.

A Flex contract provided to Gizmodo states that drivers “may provide Amazon with data about your use of such Licensed Materials, your geo-location and related tracking data, including your location, movements, speed at which you are traveling, and other personally identifiable information,” and that “
if you choose to deny Amazon access to this information, this could affect the availability and functionality of the Amazon Flex App and your participation in the Program.” Presumably, this data is used to increase the company’s own routing efficiency. While Amazon does not pay drivers for work if it exceeds a given block’s time, it’s unclear if Flex continues to track drivers while off-hours.

Lack of oversight and scarcity of work through Flex have caused cheating to proliferate. Drivers turn to auto-tap applications like FRep and Repetitouch to scoop up blocks much faster than human fingers are capable of, and once these practices become widespread at an FC, more scrupulous drivers either stoop to these methods or accept that regular hours won’t be possible. Though nearly every Flexer we contacted was familiar with the use of these types of software only one admitted to using it personally. “Most drivers at my warehouse are using some form of bot or macro to secure blocks, including myself,” he wrote. “Though Amazon recently sent out a threatening email regarding their use (threatening to terminate us for using them). That email is the main reason why I’ve cut back on my own use of them.” Video uploaded to YouTube even appears to show one such app running on an iPhone left charging inside inside a Fulfillment Center, screen blinking away at a feverish pace. Amazon told Gizmodo such software violates its Terms of Service.

Neither FRep or Repetitouch were built specifically for Flex, according to their respective creators. “From what I heard, there are people who heavily rely on it for their income and apparently there’s a lot of competition for jobs in general. Thus, I’m not surprised that some Flex drivers try to get an edge,” Erwin Goslawski, the German student behind Reptitouch told Gizmodo. “I can imagine that this makes it rather difficult for other users to grab jobs, however, which makes it more likely that more and more users decide to use such tools.” Despite the enormous amount of access Amazon is afforded to its drivers’ phones, “botting” remains popular and poorly policed. At least one device was built specifically to increase the likeliness of landing blocks—the Flexbot. It’s creator, a former driver named Tim McDaniel who suffers from arthritis, claims to have made it “just to level the playing field to able-bodied folks,” though certainly some of the customers who have paid $130 for the contraption—a pair of Arduino-controlled mechanical fingers—do so to avoid detection by Amazon’s software. Unlike software alternatives, Amazon told Gizmodo that Flexbot does not violate its terms of service. McDaniel originally sold Flexbot 6 on Amazon, but had his account shut down after he “fell behind on customer relations.”

Add to this a general sense of disorder, from simple issues of whether or not Flexers are allowed to drive with passengers, to integral aspects of the gig like when new blocks become available. “When Flex first started all blocks were released at 10 PM. Then they changed to all blocks being released exactly 24 hours in advance. Now they have changed to completely random times,” one driver told Gizmodo. “This causes us to have to constantly use our phone to look for blocks and waste time that we are not being paid for just to find work.”

There’s no easy way for this disposable workforce to have their problems addressed. While drivers are given a support number, Flexers claim its only purpose is to assist during the course of a block—to get the door code to an apartment building, for instance. “There’s no liaison, just hot-headed warehouse managers that will terminate a driver for anything they want,” a driver reported. And from other testimony, terminations occur frequently and with little explanation. Boilerplate emails reprimanding drivers for supposedly missed packages contain little information: only the date of the infraction, but not the package or address. Whether the package was stolen or an unscrupulous customer merely took advantage of Amazon’s willingness to offer refunds, it’s the courier who takes the fall. “It’s frustrating because Amazon will always believe the customer,” a driver claimed, echoing the sentiments of many others. “Even with photo or bodycam evidence. We have no support. And one customer too many and we’ll get that termination email.”

A termination email
A termination email

To combat confusing rules—due both to changes in the program over time and quirks of individual FCs—drivers tend to share information over closed Facebook groups, Reddit, and gig economy forum Uberpeople. The largest of these boasts a membership of over 20,000. According to a moderator of one such community, a change in the Flex program takes place approximately every six weeks, sometimes buried inside a Terms of Service update. Many of the posts in these digital break rooms can be summarized as: Here’s what happened to me. Is this normal? But no matter how experienced, the advice of other, equally powerless people can only go so far in certain situations.

So where can a driver go to resolve an issue or dispute their termination? That leaves one final option: Flex’s reviled support email line.

“It’s as if they scan it for keywords and then have a copy-and-paste type response to everything,” a Detroit-based driver told Gizmodo. “Literally I got the same email twice.” Unfortunately this appears to be a common occurrence.

Flex, as part of a pilot program Amazon is rumored to be using to take on UPS, Fedex and others, is a constantly shifting set of systems with a number of redundancies. Besides drivers, some cities also employ motor scooter couriers and—in Manhattan at least—“Johnny walkers” who gather around delivery trucks and roll their packages to buildings on foot. But by far the biggest threat to self-employed Flexers (and vice versa) are “white vans”—third-party local couriers Amazon also contracts to do last-mile work.

Joining the fleet

The arrangement is virtually the same as Flex, only scaled up to accommodate bigger vans and larger package counts—as many as 270 per run, according to one source—and with pay going to the company to distribute as it sees fit, rather than to individual drivers. The major draw for Amazon—though it declined to comment on most aspects of these local business arrangements—appears to be the ability to count on a reliable number of couriers all capable of hauling an equally reliable volume (300 cubic feet or large is the required van size) of parcels.

Amazon considers these companies, just like individual Flexers, to be contractors, though drivers still have to run Amazon’s software while working, and still have to pass a check from Accurate Background. “We have to background check the guys [that deliver Amazon packages]. We have to use their background check company. They won’t even tell us what the criteria is,” a California-based courier business owner said with clear frustration. A dispatcher for another last-mile courier claimed that applicants who don’t pass Accurate Background’s vetting simply aren’t hired by the company he works for. UPS spokesman Dan McMackin told Gizmodo that Amazon is not a threat to UPS—whose drivers are both full employees and the single largest contingent of long-lived Teamsters labor union—because “ecommerce is bigger than one customer.” In his opinion, good courier work requires a skilled, consistent workforce, and retaining that pool of labor means providing solidly middle-class wages and benefits. However much he claims to dislike doing business with large, often pushy customers, the California courier said he finally agreed work with a company like Amazon because, “the writing’s on the wall that Amazon’s gonna take over the whole delivery industry in the next ten years.”

Worryingly, courier company owners allege their drivers can be individually deactivated from using the Flex app. “They tier people out, it’s called, because you get a tier one offense, you cannot log into the app anymore,” the California boss claimed. “Amazon does fire people.” But deactivation is only the most extreme action within a larger scheme of control. “Fulfillment center managers control [...] what drivers can come, what can’t,” a New Jersey courier company owner told Gizmodo. “If you make a mistake in there, if you have a mouth on you and use curse words, they don’t allow that whatsoever, and they’ll take you out in a heartbeat. They’ll even take out the whole company if they want to.”

That capriciousness, coupled with having significantly more at stake, also explains why, of the many dozens of courier companies advertising for Amazon route drivers, only three spoke to Gizmodo about working with Amazon. One company owner, who did not agree to answer questions about his relationship with Amazon, wrote back in an email that “anything Amazon related is really not up to me to accept on interview or not.” Asked if such companies are under non-disclosure agreement, Amazon declined to comment.

Worse still, Amazon has a history of contracting courier services that themselves subcontract their drivers, which led to it being named in lawsuits in 2015 (against Scoobeez) and 2016 (against Courier Logistics Services.) The complaints in these suits included failure to pay minimum wage, failure to compensate overtime, failure to provide meal periods, employee misclassification, and violations of the unfair competition law. Still, at least one recent hiring ad on Craigslist from a courier company explicitly sought independent contractors to run Amazon routes.

Technically, all drivers in these arrangements are required by Amazon to be full employees of those local delivery outlets, not contractors like individual Flexers. Yet Amazon’s background check policy insinuates itself into the hiring decisions these companies are able to make—especially if Amazon is provides the lion’s share of work for these local outfits—and testimony around pushy FC workers and app deactivations suggests Amazon also wields the power to functionally fire drivers as well. Amazon declined to comment specifically on any facet of its arrangement with third-party couriers, except to confirm that they are subject to the same background checks.

Over the limit

“I do think that Amazon is breaking the law. I think it’s breaking the law in a pretty widespread way,” Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney well known within courier circles for representing drivers from Lyft, Grubhub, Uber, and more recently few Amazon Flex, told Gizmodo. Though Amazon would likely disagree, the legality of the relatively new mass-contractor model remains an open question.

The way Liss-Riordan sees it, the issue at hand is labor misclassification: Amazon and similar companies pay drivers to do the work of employees, but treat them as independent contractors, denying them basic amenities like health care, benefits, and workers’ compensation in the event of an on-the-job injury—something which two of the drivers we spoke to reported experiencing. As Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel and program director for the National Employment Law Project, explained, the determination of whether a worker is doing the job of a contractor or employee comes down to a few key factors: among them, the right to control how the work is done, its permanence, the level of specialization required, and how integrated it is into the business paying for it.

Some of the drivers we spoke to had run deliveries for Flex for up to two years, which suggests continuing rather than gig-based work. And where integration is concerned, the Prime Now arm of Flex is particularly suspect, in Ruckelshaus’s opinion. “If Amazon’s promoting one-day delivery, that’s likely to be found to be integrated to Amazon’s overall products or services that it’s providing to customers,” she said.

Most damning though is Amazon’s apparent level of micromanagement. “If something’s relatively low-skill, you don’t have to show that the company, like an Amazon, told them exactly ‘take a left here, take a right there, drop this package off first,’ they mostly just want you to go from A to B, get this thing done, they don’t tell you how to get the thing done,” Ruckelshaus said. “So if Amazon is actually taking that amount of detailed oversight and control, that’s very powerful, strong evidence that it has the right to control because it’s actually exercising control over pretty minute details of the job.”

If Amazon has been engaging in misclassification on a massive scale, why haven’t there been lawsuits? Beyond the expense of retaining legal representation, Flex’s terms of service also include an arbitration agreement which waives drivers’ rights to a class-action lawsuit against Amazon. It’s a common practice for comparable gigs, affecting some 25 million contracts. And though the version of the Flex contract made available to Gizmodo gives drivers the ability to opt out within two weeks of signing, it seems few do. Individual drivers looking to escalate an issue can’t bring it to court, keeping whatever ruling might have resulted from becoming valuable case law.

“These companies have been very effective at wielding their arbitration clauses,” Liss-Riordan said. The result, in Ruckelshaus’s view, is that “the company doesn’t feel the heat because it doesn’t have to pay off all of its drivers, it only has to pay off the ones that bring their claims, and then nobody else knows—Did that guy win? What happened? It’s harder to change the practices across an entire company when it’s individual private arbitration.” While drivers are free to opt in to Liss-Riordan’s current Flex suit, the class-action gag keeps her from sending notice to driver who might benefit from joining.

Compounding the difficulty of driver going up against a powerful and well-insulated company, of the governmental and regulatory regulatory agencies Gizmodo reached out to for comment on Amazon’s business practices, few seem to have ever heard of the Flex program or have an official stance on it. Even the National Labor Relations Board, which by its own description “acts to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices,” declined to comment on Flex, and further declined to comment on whether or not Flex even fell under the purview of the agency. Mounting regulatory pressure against Uber may have led Instacart to start walking back it’s contractor model, but no such outrage is directed at Flex, one imagines, because so few people even know it exists.

Both lawyers seemed most troubled to see these practices employed by a company of the size and wealth of Amazon. “It’s too bad that Amazon is continuing to pursue these structures, because it doesn’t have to. All it has to do is pay the minimum wage, that’s all,” Ruckelshaus said, sounding defeated. “It seems like they’re jumping through a lot of hoops to avoid being an employer for not really a good economic reason.” Similarly, Liss-Riordan, pointing to structural legal issues, said that “difficulties in enforcement are leading a company like Amazon, which is a major player and obviously could afford to do it right, to lead it to shift to a system where more and more of its drivers don’t have the benefits of employment.”

Flex is indicative of two alarming trends: the unwillingness of legislators to curb harmful practices of tech behemoths run amok, and a shift towards less protected, more precarious opportunities in a stagnant job market. Under the current administration, it’s unlikely either will receive the attention it deserves. There is a glimmer of hope for Liss-Riordan and the scores of Flexers she hopes to help though. On October 2nd, the US Supreme Court’s new term began. Among its cases is one which will determine the legality of arbitration clauses like the one Amazon uses to shield itself against the drivers it refuses to acknowledge as employees.

The constantly shifting, secretive nature of Amazon makes it difficult to report its activities to the public. If you have information about company, we’d like to hear from you. Reach out to the author via email with tips or to request secure communications through Signal, Wickr, or SecureDrop.

*While Fulfillment Center was the most common terminology used by drivers, these facilities were alternately or interchangeably referred to as warehouses, and rarely “pickup centers.” Amazon claimed these facilities are called “delivery stations” but requested that Gizmodo defer to the experience of our sources.