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Amazon thrived during the pandemic. These drivers say they paid the price

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Massive turnover rates. Dissatisfaction with pay. Demanding bosses. Some workers who helped Amazon take advantage of the business opportunity the pandemic brought say they aren’t pleased.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns left many Americans fearful or unable to shop at physical stores. So they turned to online shopping. Amazon purchases ballooned in 2020 — it delivered 2.3 billion more of its own packages in 2020 compared to 2019, according to data from MWPVL International, a logistics business. Amazon’s revenue grew last year by 38%. Seven months into the pandemic, CEO Jeff Bezos’s net worth surpassed $200 billion.

Amazon relied on technically independent businesses, who often rent vans owned by Amazon and are paid by the company for the routes they complete. These businesses, called “delivery service partners,” or DSPs for short, have 20-40 Amazon vans and up to 100 employees, according to Amazon. The DSP program has expanded to 10 countries, creating 158,000 jobs at 2,500 DSPs, according to Amazon.

One of those drivers is Quentin Sauls, who describes tech disruption as “kind of my thing.” He said he was excited to start delivering Amazon packages in 2019 as it shook up the delivery world. Sauls, like many workers in Amazon uniforms driving blue Amazon trucks that you may see in your neighborhood, doesn’t technically work for Amazon. He’s employed by a DSP.

Sauls watched as Amazon morphed in a few years from depending on companies like FedEx, to having workers like him at DSPs deliver most packages. Sauls changed too. He said he’s seen drivers pushed past their breaking point.

Sauls said every couple months he gets in a van that reeks of urine. Amazon drivers, like many delivery drivers, sometimes urinate in bottles in their trucks, as bathrooms aren’t always accessible. Amazon has acknowledged that drivers have trouble finding bathrooms.

Sauls said some wind left his sails after watching Amazon warehouse workers vote not to unionize in April in Bessemer, Alabama. But like many drivers he hasn’t wavered in calling out how bad he says working conditions are for drivers who deliver Amazon packages.

Amazon feels like an “all-encompassing Goliath,” and a “Death Star,” he said.

Sauls’s frustrations are typical of the 15 current and former Amazon DSP drivers whom CNN Business interviewed. He said there’s no point in learning the name of new colleagues at his Georgia delivery station. Turnover is high, Sauls and other drivers say. Pay starts at $15 an hour, compared to other delivery companies like UPS, where it starts at $21 an hour, according to the company.

Amazon’s routing and navigation is inefficient and frustrating, drivers said, and they describe being sent on round-about routes, and directed to drive through fences, fields, or on impassable roads. Drivers said the job worsened when the pandemic hit a year ago. Amazon, which is relatively new to delivery compared to other major players, seems to need time to learn and address challenges that have emerged as it has grown quickly, according to one DSP owner.

Some DSP owners who employ drivers like Sauls have grown concerned. They’ve taken to a private Amazon forum to describe a spike in injuries and worker compensation claims this spring, according to documents viewed by CNN Business.

While some DSP owners have made changes amid complaints from drivers, in some cases drivers don’t feel they’ve seen improvements. Experiences vary across Amazon’s 2,500 DSPs. Some talk of unionizing, so they’ll be better heard. But Amazon’s delivery network is legally structured in a way that makes it especially difficult and risky to unionize. Some drivers describe feeling forced to endure the conditions, because they have nothing better.

“Where is the time to take a break, to hydrate properly, to use the bathroom, to do what a normal person would do during a workday?” said Sauls, who is looking for another job.

For its part, Amazon said the comments in this story do not reflect the experiences of the vast majority of its DSP drivers.

Amazon starts to deliver

Amazon made headlines in 2018 when it said that for $10,000, you could be your own boss, and start a small business delivering Amazon packages. Amazon said the owners of these small businesses could make as much as $300,000 a year.

The businesses, called “Amazon Delivery Service Partners,” (DSPs) pay an Amazon partner to rent Amazon-branded vans. Some DSPs will sometimes rent additional vans from third parties that aren’t branded with Amazon’s logo. DSPs also purchase Amazon uniforms. A DSP is then assigned delivery routes and packages to deliver on those routes.

DSP owners are technically small business owners that contract with Amazon to deliver its packages. No previous logistics experience is required, Amazon said. After completing an application process, a DSP owner can hire up to 100 employees and lease between 20 and 40 vans to use for deliveries through an Amazon partner. DSPs can deliver for businesses besides Amazon, but the Amazon vans can only be used for Amazon deliveries.

DSP owners have to pay some expenses, such as cellphones for drivers and uniforms. DSPs must also provide health insurance for full-time drivers. DSP owners are paid for packages delivered and routes completed. Amazon comes up with the routes, which DSPs can then assign to whatever driver.

There are more than 100,000 DSP drivers, Amazon said on its April 29 earnings call. Salaries must be no less than $15 an hour, Amazon’s minimum wage.

The business model seems to be working to reduce Amazon’s reliance on traditional carriers. Amazon delivered two thirds of its own packages in North America in 2020, only two years after delivering only 20%, according to MWPVL International data.

Amazon is the only retailer delivering at a national scale with its own branded trucks, according to Peter Moore, a Georgia College & State University professor who studies logistics and supply chain management.

Moore called Amazon’s DSP model clever and strategic, in part because it had flexibility — unlike competitors UPS and FedEx — to avoid high unionized labor costs. The structure of Amazon’s DSPs — with so many small LLCs, is likely to discourage unionization efforts, which could increase Amazon’s costs. Drivers know Amazon may cut ties with a DSP that unionizes, he said. It’s also unappealing for union organizers to try to unionize small companies like DSPs, he said.

Another benefit to Amazon’s unique DSP model, according to Moore, is the trucks are essentially an advertisement for Amazon.

“They’re rolling billboards running up and down everybody’s streets every day. That has to be part of Amazon’s rationale,” Moore said.

Whether Amazon’s DSPs are truly small businesses is the kind of thing a court would need to decide, Moore said. He said there are some parallels to Uber and Lyft’s model. It’s been hotly debated, and there’s been many legal battles, over whether the ride-hail drivers are contractors or employees.

The driver’s life

A DSP driver’s shift generally begins with loading their truck with packages at an Amazon delivery station. The delivery route is programmed into the Amazon’s app, which tells drivers in what order to make deliveries. Drivers describe getting phone calls from bosses if they’re falling behind. They deliver hundreds of packages during shifts that are usually 10 hours.

Some deliveries come with specific instructions from customers, such as to leave a package in their backyard, under a porch table or in a garage. Some of the notes include complaints about past deliveries or other requests, according to drivers.

Amazon said in 2018 that it would take a hands-on role to help the DSP businesses grow and thrive. But many drivers said the company’s leadership has been lacking and DSP owners have expressed concerns too.

Walt Rehon, who owns Dragon Logistics, a DSP in Warwick, Rhode Island, said it seems that Amazon is trying to do the right thing, but it hasn’t yet gotten the delivery business down to a science.

Rehon said drivers were disgruntled early this year after the number of packages didn’t slow down from the pace of the holiday season, and they were no longer receiving holiday bonuses. He said he was glad to see Amazon increase wages for drivers this spring, but wish it had come earlier this year.

Amazon, asked to respond to the concerns raised in this story, said in a statement that the anecdotes don’t represent the experiences of the vast majority of its drivers.

“More than 90% of drivers finish their routes before their scheduled time. We’ve invested heavily to make that possible, and are always listening to their feedback to continue investing in future improvements.”

’36 stops an hour’

Although the DSPs are technically separate businesses from Amazon, the owners have no control over the number of packages initially assigned to each route. A driver who is falling behind can be “rescued” by colleagues, who come and take some of the packages, according to drivers.

This past March, a DSP owner posted on a private Amazon forum for DSP owners that they’d seen a 200% increase in injuries and felt it was related to more stops per route, according to screenshots of forum posts viewed by CNN Business. The owner did not give a timeframe over which the claimed 200 percent increase occurred.

“Asking a driver to do a stop every 36 seconds I feel is not sustainable nor safe,” the poster said.

Amazon, asked for comment, declined to say if drivers are ever expected to make a stop every 36 seconds, or how it sets goals for how many stops per hours drivers should make.

Nearly 20 people replied, agreeing that drivers making more stops led to more worker compensation claims. Many described injuries they’d seen, and a recent uptick in worker comp claims that mirrored an increase in stops per route this year.

Drivers work for the DSPs, so worker compensation claims are filed with the DSP, not Amazon.

Injuries are not uncommon in the industry, and Amazon isn’t the only major player in the delivery world to be the subject of complaints in online forums. Light truck drivers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One poster described a driver getting injured on a route delivering 334 packages to 253 stops, an unusually heavily workload. The poster said the driver was averaging 36 stops an hour, but was behind on their route. The driver said they got hurt because they were trying to walk too fast, missed a step and fell, the poster said.

“My drivers are barely making it. Knee braces, air casts, back issues, mental health struggles,” said another poster. “The actual deterioration of 100+ human minds and bodies is not something I can abide by much longer.”

Another poster described how even one of their best drivers was affected, a 24-year-old former college football player.

“It’s just the wear and tear of 250 packages and night-time deliveries,” the poster said. “I’m at a loss for how to handle this.”

DSP owners have some power to limit the burden on drivers, and in some cases have done so given concerns.

Rehon, the Dragon Logistics owner, altered drivers’ schedules in February after noticing that drivers making more delivery stops on each route contributed to higher injury rates. Drivers seemed tired even before their shifts even started late in the workweek, he said.

Rehon encouraged drivers to work two days, then take a day off, and then work two more days. (Full-time drivers generally work four 10-hour days a week.) Previously, drivers worked four days in a row for Rehon. He said the change was popular with drivers.

The union challenge

Anthony, a DSP driver in Chicago Illinois, who CNN Business is identifying only by his first name given retribution concerns, said that his colleagues are reluctant to unionize, because they say Amazon will just cut ties with their DSP, and bring in another one. Anthony, who said he makes $18 an hour, sees the DSP model as an anti-union strategy.

Amazon declined to comment on the anti-union claim.

Amazon unveiled the DSP model in 2018 as a small business- friendly effort, though it also set the table for Amazon to cut ties with larger delivery partners like Bear Down Logistics and RCX Logistics, who employed hundreds of people at multiple delivery stations, giving them more leverage with Amazon, if those DSPs had been unionized.

Workers at Bear Down Logistics began to unionize in the summer of 2019, before pausing the campaign that August, according to Kevin Schwerdtfeger, an official at Teamsters Local 344 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who was involved in the organizing campaign.

Amazon’s deals with Bear Down Logistics and RCX Logistics ended in 2020, leading to layoffs, according to reports.

DSPs today are limited to working at one delivery station and cannot employ as many workers as the earlier Amazon partners.

“We’re working for the richest man on Earth, we’re doing all the work that makes his company run and all we’re asking for is a reasonable, livable wage,” Anthony said.

Randy Korgan, a Teamsters national director, told CNN Business that in 1990, after six months on his first transportation job out of high school, he was making $15 an hour. That’s the same rate many DSPs pay drivers today. DSP owners have some flexibility to pay drivers more, but say that increasing wages cuts into their profits and makes the businesses challenging to operate.

“It’s an industry many of us are proud to have raised our families in. We were able to send kids to college and live in decent neighborhoods,” Korgan said. “Somebody patting a company on the back for paying $15 an hour across the board? It’s mind-boggling to some of us.”

Routing problems

Drivers blame Amazon’s routing software for making their days unnecessarily long. Sauls said Amazon’s software is worse than what he used while delivering packages for FedEx, his previous employer.

Drivers shared screenshots of their routes with CNN Business, showing how they’d have to double back to a block late in their shift that they’d visited earlier in the day.

Other drivers say they find themselves making frequent left turns, crossing busy streets on foot to make multiple deliveries at one stop, or needing to make U-turns. UPS, a competitor, has its drivers avoid left turns, according to the spokesman Dan McMackin. UPS also has its drivers only deliver packages to one side of a street at a time to avoid the safety risks of crossing busy streets, McMackin said. The company said this is also more efficient.

“There is a joke at my depot. No matter where your next stop is, there’s a 50% chance it’s behind you,” said one driver based in the United Kingdom, who was granted anonymity given concerns about retribution from Amazon.

Even worse, sometimes drivers say they are directed to drive where it’s illegal or impossible, like the wrong way down a one-way street or through greenspace. Last year an Amazon DSP driver crashed their truck into a low tunnel on a golf course, reportedly because they were instructed to take that route. Amazon declined to comment on the reported crash.

Derrick Flournoy, who drove for a DSP in Downers Grove, Illinois, said he began sending pictures of odd situations to his manager after he joined in 2019.

“You’d be at a dead end and the app would tell you to keep straight and turn right,” Flournoy said. “I’m in a cul-de-sac, I’m not going to drive through a field.”

Flournoy’s DSP did not respond to a request for comment, and Amazon did not comment on the routing challenges drivers described.

Flournoy had other concerns.

He wouldn’t know his work schedule for the week until the Friday before, he said, because turnover was so high, making it hard to schedule drivers. Flournoy said he struggled to convince his manager that he wore his seatbelt. An app that monitors Amazon drivers reported that Flournoy wasn’t wearing his, he said. It was later determined that the seatbelt detection sensor was broken in the van, according to Flournoy.

Flournoy wasn’t happy, and he knew colleagues weren’t either. He said he set up a chat group earlier this year on an Amazon app for drivers at his DSP to discuss concerns. He said the group was shut down within an hour. Flournoy said his shifts started to be cut back.

“He would always say ‘You should be happy you have a job,'” Flournoy said of his manager. “They know it’s a numbers game and somebody is always looking for a job. If you quit there are three people looking to take your spot.”

In February Flournoy quit. Many drivers do the same. Another DSP employee, granted anonymity given concerns of retribution, said their delivery terminal has 550 drivers and that turnover is so frequent they have to train 150 to 200 new drivers each month.

David Leland, the CEO of the routing company GroundCloud, told CNN Business that he’s heard from several DSPs that their average turnover is about 90 days.

“It’s kinda like a revolving door,” Juan Ramos, an Amazon DSP driver, told CNN Business.

Rehon, the Dragon Logistics owner, said he tends to hire entry-level drivers, but loses some of them to UPS and FedEx.

“They learn how to drive from us and if they get good, then they can go to UPS or FedEx and get a raise,” Rehon said.

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