For its first 20 years, Amazon.com Inc. relied on UPS and other delivery companies to get packages to its customers’ doorsteps. Then a shipping disaster one Christmas made Jeff Bezos decide to build his own transportation network. Today, Amazon has hundreds of warehouses of all sizes, nestled around and inside major cities around the world. Its recognizable, grayish-blue vans navigate many neighborhoods, dropping off the stuff ordered online just a day or two before.
The fifth episode of Foundering: The Amazon Story chronicles the remarkable expansion of the Amazon supply chain into our cities and communities. It also tells the story of Amazon’s strained relationship with its new delivery contractors, the so-called delivery service partners. Those small businesses are at the mercy of Amazon’s shifting demands and unpredictable algorithms. Caught in the middle of it all are drivers, who wear Amazon uniforms but do not technically work for the technology giant. The challenges include unfriendly dogs and little time for bathroom breaks.
‘Don’t Kill Me’: Carjacked Amazon Drivers Want Destination Before Taking Gig
A deliveryman shot on Chicago’s South Side says the information would let drivers decide if $30 an hour is worth the risk.
(Bloomberg) George Hunt took two bullets in a botched carjacking while delivering packages for Amazon.com Inc. in Chicago. Now he’s pushing the e-commerce giant to notify contract drivers in advance about the neighborhoods they’ll be traveling to so they can decide if $30 an hour is worth the risk.
Hunt left his 2015 Volkswagen Jetta running just before 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 23 to make a delivery on East 87th Place on Chicago’s South Side. While running up to the stoop to drop off a package, he was startled to hear his engine revving. He turned around to see a man emerge from his car and point a gun at him. The gunman popped off several shots as Hunt ducked for cover. One bullet struck him in the shoulder and lodged in his back. Another passed through his left thigh and grazed his right leg. Hunt only realized later it was a carjacking gone awry, and the would-be thief most likely abandoned his car because he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.
“While I’m on the ground, I’m not being a hero,” said Hunt, 32, who also owns a car detailing business in Indiana with his brother. “I’m screaming ‘Don’t kill me. I’ve got a baby on the way. I didn’t see shit. Just go. Just go.’”
His was the third and most extreme incident affecting Chicago contract delivery drivers over two days last month. Hours after the attack on Hunt, a 69-year-old Uber driver was carjacked. The following day, two armed men demanded van keys from a 36-year-old Amazon delivery driver and stole the vehicle full of packages, according to police.
Chicago is the epicenter of a spike in carjackings plaguing big cities around the U.S., leaving gig workers who spend their days ferrying meals, people and packages particularly vulnerable. Vehicular hijackings in Chicago jumped 30% in 2021 from the previous year. The city created a task force to fight the rise, and police have announced a string of arrests. New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans are among other big cities that have reported a rise in carjackings, often used by gangs to test the gumption of young recruits.
Hunt’s shooting is galvanizing drivers who want more information about their destinations and caught the attention of U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Chicago Democrat. “Companies like Amazon rely on independent contractors to dodge responsibility for wages, benefits, and workplace protection,” he said. “I call on Amazon to do right by its workers and on Congress to fix these oversights in our labor law.”
Most drivers working for Amazon’s gig-style Flex service receive assignments via a smartphone app that tells them how much they can earn and about how long the trip is expected to take. But drivers don’t know specifically where they’re being sent until they get to the delivery station to gather their packages. If they decline a route, Amazon penalizes them, which can mean they get less work or no further work at all. The delivery station from which Hunt usually works, in Country Club Hills just south of Chicago, has signs posted to remind drivers that they can’t decline routes or ask for new ones.
“If you choose to not take a route based on location, it is considered a route refusal and appropriate action will be taken,” reads a sign in the station, according to a photo reviewed by Bloomberg.
Amazon spokeswoman Maria Boschetti said the company has a “rigorous process” to evaluate dangerous incidents so it can prevent them from happening again, but she declined to reveal any details. Drivers taking delivery blocks don’t know their destinations in advance because the routes haven’t been assigned yet, she added.
“We’re committed to the safety of drivers and the communities where we deliver, and we work hard to ensure Amazon Flex delivery partners feel safe on the road while making customer deliveries,” Boschetti said. “If a driver arrives at the delivery location and does not feel safe, they are not expected to deliver their route and will not be penalized for refusing. At Amazon, safety is our top priority, and we want to ensure all Flex [delivery partners] feel safe delivering their routes.”
Amazon isn’t the only delivery service providing limited information about destinations. DoorDash Inc. couriers can see the minimum pay and distance of a delivery, but not the specific address until the order is accepted. At Lyft Inc., drivers can see the distance to a pickup location, but not a passenger’s destination before accepting a trip.
In the lead-up to Proposition 22, a California ballot measure exempting gig companies from a state law requiring them to classify workers as employees, Uber Technologies Inc. let drivers set their own prices for rides and see passengers’ destinations before accepting a trip. The ride-hailing company later revoked the feature, saying drivers turned down too many rides. Since then, Uber has been experimenting with versions of the policy, giving drivers more visibility again in 24 U.S. cities. Previously, such information was reserved for drivers who accepted a certain number of rides.
Drivers simply want the same information supplied to most independent businesses, said Lenny Sanchez, director of the Illinois chapter of the Independent Drivers Guild, which advocates for drivers’ rights and has about 250,000 members around the country. “Allow us to make an intelligent decision on whether we want to accept an assignment rather than making it a big gamble every time we hear a beep on our phones.”
Drivers have voiced concerns about being sent to Chicago in the early morning when it’s still dark given the number of shootings and robberies in the area, but Amazon hasn’t listened, they said. Some drivers have resorted to carrying weapons, even though it’s against company policy.
“Amazon intentionally leaves off where you’re going because they know if they put up routes for certain neighborhoods, they wouldn’t get picked up,” Hunt said. “Do I feel bad for the people in those neighborhoods? Absolutely. But not so bad that I should have to go out there and get shot and be expected to go back to the same neighborhood the next day.”
Any company that offers to deliver just about anything, anywhere, at any time will struggle to navigate crime-stricken areas. Amazon can stop dispatching drivers to specific addresses if they report aggressive animals or customer harassment. But ceasing or even limiting operations in entire neighborhoods—especially those with large minority populations—can run afoul of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits the withholding of services based on race. If Amazon shared destinations up front, drivers could demand more pay to go to neighborhoods they perceive as dangerous, driving up costs.
“On the one hand, withholding information reinforces the grip algorithmic management has on workers,” says Lindsey Cameron, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “On the other, one of reasons you’re able to get drivers into these lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods, is because there’s no visibility. I don’t know if there’s a simple way to regulate this.”
Domino’s Pizza Inc. in 2000 signed a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department following complaints that it discriminated against Black people by providing limited delivery in some neighborhoods. The decree required Domino’s to base such decisions not merely on an employee’s perceptions but on crime statistics that demonstrated certain areas to be dangerous. In 2016, Amazon agreed to expand its same-day delivery service to minority urban neighborhoods in Boston, New York and Washington after a Bloomberg investigation revealed the company excluded some predominantly Black zip codes in several big cities.
Hunt started delivering for Amazon regularly in January after learning his wife was expecting their first child. His detailing business suffered during the pandemic, and he wanted to earn extra money. He typically took four-hour routes that begin as early as 3:30 a.m. and pay about $120. His destination each day is random, and he can find himself 40 miles in any direction from the delivery station.
After getting shot, Hunt waited a few minutes on the ground, then jumped in his car and sped off. He parked in front of a drugstore a few blocks away and called the police, then phoned his brother who helped him stay alert until help arrived. He spent about 12 hours in the emergency room, his wife waiting outside due to Covid-19 restrictions. Hunt wears a sling to help heal a broken scapula and said doctors told him it will be months before he can use his left hand again, which he needs for the detailing business. His lawyer submitted a claim for worker’s compensation, and his brother is overseeing the business in the meantime. Hunt hasn’t received a hospital bill yet, but said he has insurance and hopes his portion of the bill doesn’t exceed a few thousand dollars.
Hunt said he won’t deliver Amazon packages again for fear he wouldn’t survive another shooting. But he says even if some drivers refuse to accept gigs in certain neighborhoods, Amazon knows hundreds more will take the risk. Once his wounds heal, Hunt plans to visit Washington to speak with any lawmaker who’ll listen. “We don’t have any power,” he said. “Amazon’s gonna get us killed.”