Amazon’s Delivery Drivers Pushed to Limit as Holiday Shipping Reaches Frenzy

A worker tapes a box while packing items on Cyber Monday at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in San Bernardino. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A worker tapes a box while packing items on Cyber Monday at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in San Bernardino. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

There are few things more important to Amazon than delivery. A large part of the reason the retailer is valued at $360 billion is that it has managed to get customers the things they want, cheaper and faster than its competitors.

Someday, the company promises, drones will deposit boxes at people’s doorsteps. But for now, the job of handling the holiday delivery crunch is left to an army of people like Angel Echeverria.

Echeverria, 38, drives for LMS Transportation, a local courier in Inglewood that delivers packages for Amazon. He starts each day with about 260 boxes, which he has to drop off at maybe 200 addresses across up to 80 miles in Southern California.

Factoring in the time needed to load and gas up his white van, which sometimes sports a magnetized Amazon logo on the back door, Echeverria has to hit one home every two minutes, on average. Failing to deliver even one package is not an option, he says.

“If you bring anything back, they basically want to cut your throat off,” says Echeverria, a single father of three who makes $15 an hour.

For all the control it exercises, Amazon doesn’t count Echeverria and many other people who speed around major cities in vans filled with Amazon boxes as its employees.

In an echo of complaints by Uber drivers and other contract workers, delivery drivers in interviews with The Times and in court documents say Amazon is working them past a reasonable point, and often avoids paying them overtime or giving legally required meal breaks.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company’s code of conduct for contract delivery companies requires them to provide “appropriate work hours and overtime pay.”

But in the last two years, drivers in four states have sued the company for allegedly misclassifying them as independent contractors. Those drivers have said they don’t get overtime pay and can earn less than the minimum wage because they spend so much on gas every week.

In 2015, drivers for Pasadena-based courier Scoobeez who delivered packages for Amazon sued both companies for denying them overtime and effectively paying them less than the minimum wage after drivers subtracted gas, tolls and maintenance from their paychecks.

Drivers in Arizona settled in October with Amazon,  which did not admit fault. Cases against the company in California, Illinois and Washington are still being adjudicated.

Labor experts say the cases against Amazon are unusual among contract-work complaints for the level of control the company is claimed to have over the people who deliver its goods.

“With Uber, the individual worker decides on their own when they want to work, how long they want to work, and how they want to provide service to the customer,” said Seth Harris, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Labor Department.

“This is not that. Amazon has a product in its fulfillment center or its warehouse that has to get to a particular person by a particular time, and they are dictating all of that.”

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said the delivery firms it contracts with make their own decisions about when to fire employees. But she added that Amazon expects the contract companies to provide a certain level of service.

Those expectations mount during the holidays. On its busiest day, the Monday after Thanksgiving — Cyber Monday, in industry parlance — Amazon was expecting to receive more than 54 million orders.

To get the flood of holiday goods to their purchasers, Amazon relies on every delivery option available. That includes FedEx, UPS and the Postal Service, which in 2013 agreed to deliver packages on Sunday for the company.

But three years ago Amazon began relying more on local couriers, said Rob Howard, the chief executive of Grand Junction, a Web platform that connects those companies to Amazon and other e-commerce retailers.

“[Amazon] realized that the local couriers could do more than UPS and FedEx. In many cases they are less expensive, because they are non-unionized, the drivers are independent contractors,” Howard said.

Several drivers and industry officials said in interviews that Amazon keeps records on the performance of every one of its drivers, and pressures contractors to fire the ones who can’t keep up.

In a court deposition, a former manager at a delivery service called LaserShip, which was sued in Virginia by drivers for misclassification, said the company kept those records on drivers on behalf of Amazon. It said the retailer does not want drivers to exceed a certain threshold of complaints, and had requested that the company fire at least one driver.

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SOURCE: Natalie Kitroeff 
The Los Angeles Times