Amazon is the second-largest US employer and still one of the fastest-growing in the country. It offers income and benefits to well over 1 million people, and it’s been a source of jobs and shopping convenience during the pandemic.
With that level of influence, Amazon’s operations have come under intense scrutiny, which has prompted a nationwide unionization effort. The following covers everything you need to know about what it’s like to work at the company.
How Amazon culls its workforce
Insider is investigating Amazon’s system for improving, or ousting, employees deemed underperformers. Once managers label workers as struggling, they are put on a “Focus” coaching plan. If they fail there, the workers are moved to another program called “Pivot,” and then finally to an internal company jury that decides their fate at the company.
The system has been criticized by some current and former employees, who say it is unfairly stacked against them and can encourage managers to give bad reviews to good staff. Amazon says it gives managers tools to help employees improve and advance in their careers. “This includes resources for employees who are not meeting expectations and may require additional coaching. If an employee believes they are not receiving a fair assessment of their performance, they have multiple channels where they can raise this,” a company spokesperson said recently.
There’s been a rash of lawsuits filed against Amazon alleging gender and racial bias. In May, five current and former female employees sued the company Amazon, claiming “abusive mistreatment by primarily white male managers.”
In February, Charlotte Newman, a Black Amazon manager, filed a suit alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment. And last year, a high-profile female engineer called on the company to fix what she saw as a “harassment culture,” Insider reported.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company investigated the cases, found no evidence to support the allegations, and doesn’t tolerate discrimination or harassment.
The company’s fulfillment centers employ hundreds of thousands of people, offering pay and benefits that are competitive versus other retail-industry jobs. But the work can be grueling, some staff don’t stick around long, and there are growing efforts to unionize this modern blue-collar workforce.
Amazon warehouses are partly automated, using robots that zip around the shop floor fetching pallets of merchandise and bringing them to employees who pick the correct items and pack them for shipping. The company hires thousands of extra temporary workers each year to support a surge in orders during the holiday shopping period.
During the pandemic, online orders have jumped at an unusual time for Amazon. It prompted an unprecedented hiring spree last year but caused tension with workers concerned about entering warehouses that could spread the virus. These issues came to a head earlier this year, when employees at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, voted on whether to form a union. The effort failed, but there’s a bigger union push gathering steam.
Amazon’s delivery network relies on thousands of drivers
The company partners with UPS, FedEx, and the US Postal Service, but it also operates a massive fleet of in-house delivery vehicles. These vans are driven by a combination of employees, third-party courier services, and contract workers.
Amazon is known for imposing strict time constraints on drivers and tracking how many times they stop and how fast they drive. While the company factors in break times – a 30-minute lunch and two 15-minute breaks – some drivers say they either can’t or don’t want to take them.
Earlier this year, a US lawmaker tweeted that Amazon workers have to pee in bottles. The company denied this, but multiple drivers confirmed it was part of the job. Amazon later apologized and said drivers have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic and being on rural routes, adding that the issue has been exacerbated by closed public bathrooms during the pandemic.
Amazon remains an important employer that is growing quickly. Unlike some of its Big Tech rivals, the company offers a range of positions, from highly technical roles to blue-collar jobs. It’s recruiting methods range from massive job fairs to tough one-on-one interviews.
The company ranks among the top employers among technical students. In a survey published last year, Amazon came 10th in a survey of engineering students, beating out Intel and IBM but trailing Tesla and SpaceX.
Many Amazon drivers say the solitude and the independence of working on the road are big draws of the job.
But those perks are under threat since Amazon started installing surveillance cameras in delivery vans that monitor workers’ driving, hand movements, and even facial expressions.
Some workers are paranoid about what the cameras – which peer at them from their windshields and fire off audible alerts following missteps – are watching and how they could be punished for what the technology flags, according to interviews with five drivers.
“I know we’re on a job, but, I mean, I’m afraid to scratch my nose. I’m afraid to move my hair out of my face, you know?” a female driver based in Oklahoma told Insider. “Because we’re going to get dinged for it.”
The Oklahoma driver and several others interviewed asked that their names be withheld for fear that their jobs would be affected, but Insider verified their identities.
Several drivers said the cameras could be helpful in cases of collisions or other dangerous situations. But they also worried about how the technology was affecting their productivity and described concerns with managing bathroom needs, like changing adult diapers, within sight of the cameras.
“We have zero privacy and no margin for error,” a California-based driver said.
Netradyne, the maker of the camera system, did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. A representative for Amazon said in a statement to Insider that Netradyne cameras are used to keep drivers and communities safe. In a pilot of the cameras from April to October 2020, accidents dropped by 48%, stop-sign violations dropped by 20%, driving without a seatbelt dropped by 60%, and distracted driving dropped by 45%, according to the company.
“Don’t believe the self-interested critics who claim these cameras are intended for anything other than safety,” Amazon’s statement said.
The cameras capture yawns, distracted driving, and more
The camera system, called Driveri, isn’t made by Amazon. It was created by Netradyne, a transportation company that uses artificial intelligence to monitor fleets of drivers.
The system, mounted on the inside of a windshield, contains four cameras: a road-facing camera, two side-facing cameras, and one camera that faces inward toward the driver. Together, the cameras provide 270 degrees of coverage.
While the cameras record 100% of the time when the ignition is running, Amazon says the system does not have audio functionality or a live-view feature, meaning drivers can’t be watched in real time while they drive. The cameras upload the footage only when they detect one of 16 issues, such as hard braking or a seatbelt lapse, and that footage can be accessed only by “a limited set of authorized people,” Karolina Haraldsdottir, a senior manager for last-mile safety at Amazon, said in a training video about the cameras.
The Driveri system also sounds alerts in four instances: failure to stop, inadequate following distance, speeding, or distracted driving.
The system can be shut off, but only when the ignition is also turned off. Amazon said it would share video data with third parties, such as the police, only in the event of a dangerous incident.
The camera system sparked a backlash from some drivers shortly after it was announced. A driver named Vic told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the cameras were the final straw that led him to quit, calling them “both a privacy violation and a breach of trust.”
A driver named Angel Rajal told Insider last month that he thought the new cameras were “annoying” and made him feel as if he were always being watched.
“I get a ‘distracted driver’ notification even if I’m changing the radio station or drinking water,” he said.
Bronwyn Brigham, a driver based in Houston who has driven trucks outfitted with Driveri for about two weeks, told Insider that the presence of the cameras made her feel as if she were being watched and made her worry about how to manage her bathroom needs inside the van.
“I have to wear a Depends because I’m 56,” she said, referring to a type of adult diaper. “If I wet that Depends, I need to take that off. Then the cameras are on, so that makes it hard. If I need to change into another one, they’re watching that.”
“We are all worried that we have zero privacy,” the California driver said. “Considering we have to use bottles to relieve ourselves – is that being watched?”
The ignition must be off to turn off the cameras, but that leaves drivers with no air conditioning.
As a result, drivers in regions that experience extreme heat during the summer will need to choose between privacy and cool air while they take their breaks.
‘Rage-inducing’ voices and guidance ‘designed to make you slower’
A male driver based in Oklahoma who has been driving with the cameras for about a month told Insider that the Driveri system was obstructing his view while he drives, making it difficult to see house numbers – and children playing – on the passenger side of the street.
“I’ve had times where I look up and there’s nobody there, and then all of a sudden the kid pops out from behind where the camera is obstructing the view,” the driver said.
The driver also said the camera’s verbal alerts, which use a computer-generated voice, were distracting and “rage-inducing.” That sentiment was echoed by several other drivers who said the alerts made them feel as if they were being micromanaged.
Several drivers told Insider that they were worried about receiving infractions for handling their phones on the job, even though they need the devices for navigation.
Drivers rely on two apps while they work: Mentor, which monitors driving, and Flex, Amazon’s navigation app. A driver who delivers near the Twin Cities told Insider that he juggled this by loading one app on his work phone and the other on his personal device.
“In order to be successful throughout your day, you have to zoom in and out on the map on the Flex app that you have on a dock that you can look at while driving,” he said. “My concern is that … with the cameras in place, it’s going to be noticing we’re using our phone while driving.”
Keeping up with Amazon’s demands is an ongoing concern for drivers. Some are worried that the new system will slow them down, making it more difficult to deliver all the packages they’re expected to drop off every day, which could be as many as 300.
For example, Driveri is triggered by a “failure to stop” at an intersection. However, the female Oklahoma-based driver said that in situations where a stop sign is several feet before the intersection, she had to stop twice to avoid an infraction, costing her valuable seconds. The California driver said he feared being reprimanded for going just a few miles above the speed limit.
Brigham said that she was doing her best to drive especially carefully now that the cameras are installed and that it was slowing her down. If she’s not moving fast enough, she said, she’ll get a call from her dispatcher – a supervisor who tracks drivers’ progress – telling her she’s running behind in her deliveries.
The male driver from Oklahoma said the new system felt like a Catch-22.
“The job is all about speed and how fast you can get to the door,” he said. “But these cameras and some of the other policies Amazon has in place, it’s like they’re designed to make you slower.”
Being watched by a computer is now part of the job
Several of the drivers Insider interviewed said there were advantages to the Driveri system.
If an accident occurs during a delivery, for instance, the system will automatically upload the footage. Drivers will be able to prove if they were paying attention and following the rules of the road.
And the cameras will record outside the delivery van for 20 minutes even if the ignition is turned off, which could help drivers if someone approaches the van to harass or rob them.
Still, drivers say the cameras are a new frustration in an already challenging job.
“I do like my job, but it is stacked up against me,” the California driver said.
The driver said that 99% of the time he enjoyed delivering packages but that the cameras highlighted the extreme demands of the job. Recently, he said, he worked from 10:45 a.m. to 10:10 p.m. He said he did not have time for a single break and had to pee in a bottle twice. The entire time, he was aware the camera was on.
“The part that bothers me the most is that we’re being watched by a computer,” the male driver from Oklahoma said, “and that computer is what makes a judgment as to whether we’re doing something wrong or not, whether or not we get to keep our jobs.”
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Thousands of drivers across the US must sign the “biometric consent” paperwork this week, and if they don’t they’ll lose their jobs, according to Motherboard. The form, which was viewed by the outlet and published in the report, states that Amazon would be allowed to use “on-board safety camera technology which collects your photograph for the purposes of confirming your identity and connecting you to your driver account.” The system would then “collect, store, and use Biometric Information from such photographs.”
The technology specifically would track a driver’s location and movement, like how many miles they drive, when they brake and turn, and how fast they are driving.
As Motherboard noted, the drivers presented with the consent form are employed through third-party delivery partners that use Amazon’s delivery stations but who are still subject to the company’s working guidelines. An Amazon delivery company owner told the outlet that one of their drivers refused to sign, citing Amazon’s micromanaging as the reason.
Amazon did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The AI cameras are able to sense if a driver is speeding, yawning, or if they’re not wearing their seatbelt, among other motions. Each truck’s system includes four cameras: one with a view of the road, two that face the side windows, and one that faces the driver.
Amazon agreed last month to pay some of its contract delivery drivers in Washington state $8.2 million to settle a class-action wage-theft lawsuit, reported earlier on Friday by Vice News and confirmed by Insider.
The lawsuit, originally filed by two Amazon delivery drivers in 2017, had alleged Amazon was partly to blame for illegally failing to pay drivers the minimum wage and denying them compensation for overtime and rest breaks.
The drivers, Gus Ortiz and Mark Fredley, worked for Amazon delivery service partner Jungle Trux – one of a sprawling network of contractors Amazon uses in part to reduce its legal liability and labor costs.
Ortiz and Fredley alleged Amazon imposed delivery quotas of 150 to 200 packages per day, forcing drivers to skip legally mandated rest breaks and work past their 10-hour shifts to complete the routes, and that Jungle Trux failed to pay them for those extra hours.
The settlement, first reported on Friday, covers drivers who worked for eight Amazon delivery service partners (DSPs) in Washington state between December 2014 and July 2020: Dash Delivery, Delivery Force, A‐1 Express Delivery Service (doing business as 1‐800 Courier), Progistics Distribution, Revelation Delivery, Genesis Delivery, and Transportation Brokerage Specialists.
“Amazon does not tolerate violations of labor laws. Where we find repeated violations, or an inability to correct labor violations, we terminate contracts with DSP program participants,” Amazon spokesperson Leah Seay told Insider in a statement.
But the company has faced a number of legal challenges from drivers employed by its DSP network.
California regulators fined Amazon $6.4 million for wage-theft violations earlier this month concerning former Amazon contractor Green Messengers. Amazon told Insider it was “not aware of the investigation” and is appealing the fine.
Amazon is also facing class-action lawsuits over wage-theft allegations in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, and Washington state, according to Vice’s analysis of court records.
Business Insider spoke with four drivers who work as contracted Amazon delivery drivers about the dangers they face during the winter months, from navigating dark, rural roads and extreme weather conditions to dealing with difficult customers and package thieves.
The delivery drivers we spoke to mentioned heightened safety concerns like fear of being targeted for robberies or even robbed at gunpoint.
One driver Business Insider spoke to said he experienced two incidents where he was being followed, which led him to call the police. Another added, “There’s nothing in that van that’s worth your life.”
In a statement to Business Insider, an Amazon spokesperson said, “The safety of our drivers is our top priority.”
Dog bites, twisted ankles, and dealing with irritable customers are all just part of the job as an Amazon delivery driver. Many employees deliver in rural areas and have to navigate twisty, gravel, or dirt roads. Others deliver multiple 50-pound packages to the same five-story walk-up apartment building every day.
But as the days get shorter and the nights get longer (and darker), Amazon delivery drivers have to deal with a brand new set of dangers and safety concerns.
In recent months, several delivery drivers across the country have been kidnapped and held at gunpoint for the contents of their vehicles. Many drivers are scared and concerned about these new dangers they’re facing when out delivering packages during the winter months.
Jim Smith, 55, lives in Scappoose, Oregan, and began driving for Amazon in March 2020.
Smith joined Amazon after his freelance photography gigs were canceled indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He’s been on the job for 10 months and has already experienced the physical toll delivering for Amazon can take on one’s body, like blown out knees from 10-hour shifts.
Delivery drivers like Smith, who drive the bigger step trucks, get in and out of the car over 200 times and can walk up to 10 miles each day.
But, according to Smith, the winter months raise different safety concerns.
“The fear, or rather the reality, of possibly having your van broken into, stolen packages, or the extreme possibility of being hijacked, that’s only one of the dangers that’s present this time of year,” he said. “For me, there have been times on routes where I see the same car a couple of blocks behind me or parked in front of me. My thought is this could be either porch pirates that are following along my route and stealing packages behind me, or somebody who may have worse intent.”
Many Amazon vans have a back-up camera that is active even if the van is not in reverse, and Smith uses that screen to keep an eye on his vehicle’s surroundings.
“I know that holidays make people desperate. Add that on top of the huge unemployment that we’re seeing and people just barely scraping by because of COVID, I think there’s a lot of motive out there right now with people financially hurting,” Smith said.
Smith says he stays vigilant on the job by locking his van when he leaves it and keeping his personal cell phone on his body at all times. Acknowledging that you are a target is the first step in better preparing yourself for any future potential incidents, he said.
“You need to keep your head on a swivel, you need to use the technology that you have to try to keep yourself safe, and just realize that there’s nothing in that van that’s worth your life,” Smith said. “Give them keys, give them the company phone and plead for them to let you walk away.”
Angel Rajal, 26, lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and has worked for Amazon for the last four years.
He worked first in the warehouse and then as a delivery driver. He made the switch to deliveries in June 2020 and realized he enjoys the customer-facing experience much more than working in the distribution center packing packages.
But Rajal quickly started noticing, as a driver, that he would sometimes be followed.
On one occasion, Rajal noticed the same car with two women following just far enough behind him. As the car quickly approached, he noticed the backseat of their car was filled with brown packages, similar to Amazon’s, and became concerned.
“At first I thought they may have been Flex drivers, but they didn’t have the sticker or the Amazon vest, they didn’t have any of that,” Rajal said. “So I notified the police and I think they were able to get them, but I’m not sure.”
The second time Rajal noticed he was being followed, he was in a gated community and kept seeing the same young man walk back and forth from where he just delivered.
“I would see him peek around the corner just as I dropped off a package,” he said. “And when I would move on to the next stop, he walked back to the same house, and that’s when I knew that he was looking for the packages.”
Amazon has a strict policy against delivery drivers carrying weapons while working, even if a driver has a concealed carry license, Rajal explained to Business Insider. Amazon delivery drivers are considered independent contractors, not employees, but if they are found to be in possession of a weapon, they can lose their jobs.
(Editor’s note: Rajal and Smith are both employed through delivery service provider companies which Amazon contracts for deliveries, and are not considered Amazon employees.)
Rajal said he feels fairly safe delivering during the winter season, but understands that right now as the pandemic worsens and many families are hurting economically, it’s important to “check your back constantly.”
“Every time I’m on the road, during my job, I try to stay vigilant, making sure that I’m not going to have people approaching from behind when I’m on the side door looking for the packages, making sure that no cars are going to pull up on me,” Rajal said. “That’s an everyday concern because anyone can pull a gun or a knife on you at any given moment.”
Jennifer Harbaugh, 51, has been an Amazon Flex driver for over a year in Portland, Oregon.
Flex drivers are like delivery drivers, except they use their own vehicles, are not employed through a delivery service partner (DSP), and are paid per “batch”.
Batches are typically given in three hour “blocks” and contain a certain number of packages for a specified rate. According to Harbaugh, most Flex batches are available in the evening hours, and as the days get shorter during the winter, many shifts she’s delivering almost entirely in the dark.
Harbaugh delivers all across the Portland metro area, including rural areas in southern Washington. She says she’s had to deliver to homes with long, dirt driveways and “private property” signs.
She’s also been confronted multiple times by customers wondering what she was doing on their property, and was greeted one time by a man with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, wondering who she was.
Since Harbaugh is a Flex driver, she drives her own personal vehicle but also wears an Amazon vest.
Harbaugh recalled an instance where the delivery instructions said to place the package at the back door. It was night when Harbaugh arrived at the house. She struggled opening the gate, but figured no one was home. As she walked through the backyard, she noticed the home’s “huge picture windows” and a family, including two small children, eating dinner at a table.
“Those two children freaked out,” Harbaugh said. “They started screaming, and then the mom grabbed the kids and the dad started screaming at me and charged out the back door. I had my vest on, and I said, ‘I’m Amazon!’ and then he said, ‘I don’t care who you are, what are you doing in my backyard?'”
She then showed him her phone with the delivery instructions and the man quickly calmed down and apologized.
“After that I sat in my car and cried. I had an adrenaline rush and had a couple of tears and then thought, ‘Okay I’m fine.'”
Stephanie King, 56, is an Amazon Flex driver who lives in Tigard, Oregon.
King’s been a Flex driver for nearly two years, and has also driven for Lyft and Uber. She started working solely as a Flex driver at the start of the pandemic because she worried about the safety of having other people in her car.
The main concern King has as a Flex driver is making deliveries in the dark and during extreme weather conditions. Certain parts of Washington and Oregon get snow and heavy rain during the winter, so much so that King decided to put her snow tires on her car to circumvent any potential problems while she’s on the road.
“The more you drive, the more likely you are to be in an accident,” she said.
Because King delivers mostly in late evenings, she makes sure to wear bright colors.
She said she drives “an Amazon blue” electric car, too.
“I don’t want to look like just some random person. I want to look like I’m probably from Amazon, so I wear really visible stuff, so I’m not skulking around in a black hoodie, and I do that intentionally. I want to stand out as much as possible so people see me,” King said.
Drivers like King who primarily deliver in the evening hours urge customers who are expecting packages after 4 p.m. to leave their front porch light on, so that the driver can first find your house number, but more importantly, be able to see where they are walking and placing the packages, so that they don’t trip on extension cords or lawn furniture that could result in an injury.
(Editor’s note: As Flex drivers, King and Harbaugh are both independent contractors for Amazon and are not considered Amazon employees.)
“If I deliver to the wrong house I could get shot for trespassing,” King said. “The navigation gets us really close, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to next door neighbor’s, who are strung out on meth, armed to the teeth and has a rottweiler.”
King said although she tries to be prepared for any likely scenario, she doesn’t think too much about how she may be targeted or followed.
“If I was thinking like that, I wouldn’t be able to do this for a living,” she said.
Editor’s note: In a statement to Business Insider, an Amazon spokesperson said, “The safety of our drivers is our top priority.” Amazon did not respond to further inquiries about the specific circumstances brought up by the subjects in this piece.