Amazon has seemingly been bringing shipping services in-house as rapidly as it can as the company ramps up efforts to get packages to Prime members in just one day. But although those ubiquitous gray-blue vans and uniformed drivers all have Amazon branding on them, at least 250 subcontracted companies around the country actually do all the heavy lifting—a system that allows Amazon to skirt liability when heavy pressure on drivers means disaster strikes, according to a new report.
The company has actively encouraged employees to quit their jobs and go start local delivery firms it can contract with. Operating under heavy pressure to make as many deliveries as possible, as quickly as possible, and with lax regulatory oversight, drivers delivering items for Amazon have been involved in “hundreds” of crashes and other incidents in the past five years, BuzzFeed News reports. At least six people have been killed in those incidents, including a 10-month-old baby.
Amazon-branded services now deliver about half of all the company’s last-mile shipments, bringing goods from the local warehouse to your doorstep. The US Postal Service and UPS between them handle a large chunk of the other half. Professional commercial delivery businesses, such as UPS and FedEx, are subject to heavy federal regulation, and their commercial vehicles are subject to regular safety inspections. But the same is not true for Amazon.
The “sprinter” style vans Amazon delivery services use fall just under the weight limit that would subject them to Department of Transportation oversight, BuzzFeed notes. Amazon purchased about 20,000 of those vans from Mercedes-Benz last year, which it leases to the companies that deliver its goods. The vans are subject to yearly state safety inspections, as are passenger vehicles in most states, but the vehicles are not held to the same inspection, repair, and maintenance standards as a UPS truck would be.
“We have invested tens of millions of dollars in safety mechanisms across our network, and regularly communicate safety best practices to drivers,” Amazon told BuzzFeed. “We are committed to greater investments and management focus to continuously improve our safety performance.”
Safety training is also much more rigorous at the big delivery firms. Applicants and employees face drug testing and must pass entrance exams before being hired. “Even the most minor fender benders trigger internal investigations that seek to identify who was at fault and how such accidents can be avoided in the future,” BuzzFeed observes.
In some cases, though, it seems like almost anyone with a driver’s license can get a job delivering Amazon packages. Some of the lawsuits filed against the company after crashes have identified drivers who had previous convictions for traffic infractions. One former employee of an Amazon delivery firm told BuzzFeed that in his first week of training, the driver he was shadowing first backed into a light post before speeding away, then he later blew through several stop signs and ultimately ran a red light before crashing into a motorcyclist going the other way. The driver at the time had been pulled over several times in the previous eight years, BuzzFeed found: twice for going more than 20 miles per hour over the posted speed limit, and once for running a stop sign.
The former employee told BuzzFeed that he quit on his first day of driving solo after completing his training. “I thought, ‘No, this is crazy. I had 160 packages and it was raining, you can’t even see,’” he told BuzzFeed. “I took the truck back and went and told the guy, ‘This is it. I’m done.’”
The companies also face little oversight for their own bad practices, BuzzFeed reports. Amazon contracts with at least a dozen companies that BuzzFeed identified as being “repeatedly sued or cited by regulators for alleged labor violations, including failing to pay overtime, denying workers breaks, discrimination, sexual harassment, and other forms of employee mistreatment.” Two drivers working for an Amazon delivery company in the Los Angeles area told BuzzFeed they were encouraged to skip meals, use bottles instead of taking real bathroom breaks, and not to wear seat belts (which are required in California) in order to move faster.
The outsourcing problem
Amazon has a whole lot of company in relying on a shadowy network of third-party companies to do business under its brand banner. A huge number of “employees” for most tech firms are in fact employees of contracting firms.
“Gig economy” businesses such as Uber and Lyft infamously classify the people doing the work for them as independent contractors, not as employees of the company, but plenty of full-time workers for big-name tech firms are also actually working for staffing firms or smaller intermediaries.
The work of content moderation in particular tends to be outsourced to third-party firms. Several reports in recent years have exposed the poor working environments and lack of support the workers, who try to keep large platforms such as YouTube and Facebook useable, encounter trying to do the job.
More than half, about 54%, of Google’s worldwide workforce are in fact not Google employees at all, and these workers do not receive the same levels of pay or extensive benefits. Frustration from that workforce, more than 90,000 strong, bubbled over earlier this year, resulting in Google requiring all the firms it contracts with to offer a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, health benefits, paid parental leave, and tuition reimbursement benefits. About 90 contract workers for Google in Pittsburgh, actually employees of a company called HCL America, voted just before Labor Day to unionize.
Drivers for one Amazon delivery firm did attempt to unionize in 2017, BuzzFeed reports. Detroit-area workers for Silverstar Delivery voted 22-7 to join the Teamsters. Within weeks of the vote, the drivers reported to the National Labor Relations Board that they had been fired in retaliation for joining the union. (The NLRB dismissed the retaliation charge, but it did ultimately settle with Silverstar for more than $15,000 to settle other claims of anti-union activity.) A few months later, Silverstar shut down its Michigan operation entirely.
Not long after, Amazon held a meeting in Chicago with management from local delivery firms. “The whole purpose of the meeting was to say to you, ‘Here’s how to not get unionized. Because if you do, we pretty much don’t want anything to do with a union,” one attendee told BuzzFeed.