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Amazon begins a delivery service powered by regular folks

The e-commerce giant jumps into the gig economy with the new program called Amazon Flex. The service starts in Seattle.

Amazon Flex, which will power the company's speedy delivery service, is coming to more US cities soon. Amazon

Amazon's newest offering to the public: delivery jobs.

The online retailer on Tuesday rolled out a new program called Amazon Flex, which lets regular people sign up to become on-demand delivery drivers. The project is starting in Seattle, Amazon's hometown, but a company webpage said Amazon Flex will be coming soon to Manhattan, Baltimore, Miami, Dallas, Austin, Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Portland.

Amazon Flex will support Prime Now, the company's new and quickly growing service that offers no-cost rapid deliveries of food staples, electronics and toiletries in about a dozen US cities and in London in the UK. The webpage, though, mentions that Flex drivers may deliver "other types of Amazon packages" in the future, leaving the door open for Flex helping power Amazon's regular deliveries alongside the US Postal Service, FedEx and UPS.

The service makes Amazon a new participant in the gig economy, in which companies outsource jobs to on-demand workers, such as Uber and Lyft hiring private drivers or Postmates giving short-term jobs to couriers. Such business models have been criticized for not offering workers enough benefits, such as health insurance and paid sick days, and lawsuits have been filed against Uber and other firms on those grounds. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in July blasted Uber and similar companies, saying they exploit those workers. Amid that blowback, grocery delivery company Instacart and valet service Luxe have moved to convert their contractors into employees.

However, Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations, told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that his company feels "very confident" in its approach for Amazon Flex.

For now, Amazon said it's only bringing on drivers as Flex workers. It said workers can make $18 to $25 an hour delivering Prime Now packages. As with other gig economy jobs, these workers can schedule their own hours. Depending on the market, Prime Now currently uses networks of drivers, bike couriers or sometimes walkers to fulfill Prime Now orders.

Amazon Flex is one more program the company is working on to speed up deliveries so it can become an even bigger attraction for its Prime members, who pay $99 a year for no-cost, two-day shipping and other services. In an effort to coax more people to buy impulse items, food and whatever else they want without a trip to the store, Amazon has been expanding Prime Now, developing delivery drones and even delivering packages to customers' car trunks in Germany.