driver's task may seem simple: Get the package from the warehouse to you. But there's a lot between pickup and delivery -- hundreds of stops, difficult parking and the call of nature -- that can put a driver behind schedule.
That's why Samantha, a driver who works for an Amazon delivery subcontractor in Northern California, invested in a pee funnel. The device, which does exactly what you think it does, lets her urinate into a container without leaving her van.
"If I drive to a bathroom I'm going to be behind by five or six stops," said Samantha, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
Samantha isn't the only Amazon driver who worries about making a pit stop. The problem is so widespread that Amazon had to acknowledge it earlier this year after climbing down from a public pissing match with Rep. Mark Pocan, who'd assailed the company for its treatment of workers. Amazon had also mixed it up with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over worker treatment and tax regulations in an unusually messy and public Twitter exchange.
Working for Amazon will only get tougher as Prime Day deals roll out, likely creating a surge in orders. In advance of the Amazon-invented holiday, reports of working conditions for warehouse workers and corporate employees have portrayed an overbearing, chaotic and, at times, demeaning workplace. According to a New York Times report, warehouse workers found themselves slipping through the cracks during the pandemic due to buggy HR software, getting no answers when they were fired unexpectedly. The company is also facing lawsuits over unpaid time workers spend in COVID-19 checks. Corporate employees are also criticizing the company for resisting efforts to change racially biased practices and racist encounters on the job, Vox reported Tuesday.
For drivers, finding time for bathroom breaks is an industrywide problem, a fact Amazon seized on when it finally acknowledged the "peeing in bottles thing." Samantha, who's driven for the US Postal Service and FedEx, said she dealt with the issue in previous jobs. But it isn't the only challenge faced by Amazon drivers, both those who work for subcontractors and those who are independent contractors driving their own vehicles. As they run their routes, delivery drivers face impossible parking situations, high rates of injuries, and write-ups for issues beyond their control.
Amazon disagreed with this picture of drivers' experiences, which are based on interviews with drivers and news reports. "These anecdotes don't represent the experiences of the vast majority of drivers who deliver for customers every day," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "Whenever we hear concerns that drivers are having a poor experience, we take those matters seriously, and use the feedback to make improvements to better the experience for the future."
Van drivers can have more than 300 packages to deliver to as many as 200 locations during a 10-hour shift, according to drivers interviewed by CNET. Independent contractors, known as Flex drivers, work shorter shifts but at no slower pace. And Amazon controls almost every moment of their day, constructing the delivery order, mapping out street directions and, for van drivers, watching for unsafe driving with AI-powered cameras.
The common theme: Drivers are at the mercy of Amazon each time they start their routes.
Written up for a 'Scamazon'
Porch piracy is so common that Amazon instructs drivers to stash packages in secure areas, behind a bush for example, and text a photo to customers. Sometimes that isn't possible. A locked gate or uncooperative front desk can prevent drivers from reaching the door. Amazon, however, doesn't take this into account and dings drivers for failing to deliver the package.
More frustratingly, customers sometimes lie, saying a package wasn't delivered. Almost as frequent as porch piracy, the practice has gotten its own nickname in the driver community: a "scamazon." (The term is also sometimes used for fake product reviews on Amazon's website.) The company writes up drivers for an undelivered package even if the driver suspects a customer lied. Drivers say they get little response if they object to a decision. Amazon won't provide details on the incidents that got them in trouble, says Mike Ap, a Flex driver in Washington state.
"Whenever you question anything, they just respond with the same canned email responses and don't ever address our questions or concerns," Ap said.
Amazon pushed back on this portrayal of its systems. "We fully investigate customer complaints, while providing drivers the opportunity to give their version of events," the spokesperson said.
The stress of too many undelivered packages is real, Flex drivers said, because those dings can lead to deactivation on the Flex app, meaning a driver can no longer deliver for Amazon. So can negative marks for failing to verify someone's government-issued ID when delivering alcohol or cigarettes, common items delivered by Flex drivers as part of Amazon Fresh orders. If an ID card is damaged or from out of state, drivers have to choose whether to manually override the requirement to scan it, or decline to deliver the items, says Stephen Ignazio, a Flex driver in Washington state.
"If you do a manual override, you will basically get audited," Ignazio said. "But if you don't deliver it and return it to the station, then you'll get dinged for that."
Nowhere to park
Parking can be scarce in crowded areas. Drivers run the risk of angering neighbors if they block traffic or a driveway to make a delivery. The alternative is parking several blocks away and carrying several often heavy deliveries at once, drivers say.
Amazon's routing algorithms also sometimes group deliveries on both sides of a street into a single stop, Vice reported in June. As a result, drivers find themselves in the position of crossing through traffic on foot while carrying packages, sometimes on busy highways.
Amazon says its programs prioritize parking on the same side of the street as the delivery address. "If a safe parking location out of the flow of traffic is not available, drivers are instructed to drive to a safe location and contact Driver Support for assistance or additional instruction," the spokesperson said.
But slowing down can get drivers behind, drivers said. Even if drivers wanted to take their vehicle to the other side of the street, it might put them behind schedule, Ignazio said.
To overcome these challenges, some Flex drivers have begun bringing another person with them. Chelsey Greenwood, a Flex driver in Washington state, says she brings a companion for company, assistance with parking and security.
"It also allows me to keep my car running," she said.
Drivers injured on the job
Amazon drivers are also at high risk for injuries, according to an analysis of government numbers by union researchers, as well as a workers' compensation insurance company that tracks payments for injuries on the job.
The union research, compiled by the Strategic Organizing Center, found that drivers working for Amazon's subcontracted delivery companies suffered injuries at higher rates than any other workers along the company's delivery chain. (The delivery chain starts when warehouse workers pull a customer's purchases off the shelf and ends at delivery.) They had injury rates of more than 13 per 100 full-time employees in 2020. By comparison, injuries at Amazon's warehouses were more than six per 100 full-time employees in 2020.
The most common injuries affect ankles, knees and backs, according to a Denver Post report. A Colorado workers' compensation provider, Pinnacol Assurance, told the newspaper that new Amazon drivers were especially vulnerable to injuries. The insurer said 93% of claims from Amazon drivers were filed by workers who'd been on the job for less than a year. By comparison, new drivers in the delivery industry at large submitted about 58% of claims to the insurer.
Amazon pointed to its spending on injury prevention programs for drivers. "Safety is our top priority," the spokesperson said. "Whether it's state-of-the art safety technology in our vans, driver-safety training programs, a subsidized safety shoe program to prevent slips, trips, and falls, or continuous improvements with our route planning technology and navigation systems that direct drivers to their next delivery, we have invested more than $250 million to create an industry-leading experience for our delivery service partners."
Class-action attorneys are actively seeking out injured Amazon drivers to put together potential lawsuits. They'll likely face trouble suing Amazon directly, since the company subcontracts delivery to 1,300 "delivery service partners," small businesses in the US, Canada, UK, Spain and Germany that employ about 85,000 people, according to Amazon numbers from August 2020. Those small businesses are the direct employers of the drivers and don't have the same resources as Amazon would to pay out legal judgments to workers if they settle or lose in court.
Samantha, the Amazon delivery van driver, says delivery workers don't get the same benefits that Amazon touts for its warehouse workers. Instead, it's "basic" health care. Flex drivers have no benefits.
Dealing with an injury is a challenge for both groups, but drivers can't let that slow them down. Demanding routes leave them rushing with little recourse, said Samantha, who lets Amazon know what she thinks of her routes through the company's app.
"I tell them every day, 'This is not a possible route, this is impossible, dude,'" she said. "They never listen."