On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
In late January, Amazon launched a program for disciplining its delivery drivers that it claims is aimed at "training and coaching" drivers to improve safety and customer satisfaction, Motherboard has learned. Drivers are concerned, however, about the punitive measures the company says it can take against them, particularly at the behest of unsatisfied customers and under increasing surveillance from the company.
Known as the "Delivery Associate Focus Program," according to an internal Amazon document obtained by Motherboard dated January 13, 2020, the new program applies to the roughly 85,000 contractors nationwide who operate Amazon-emblazoned delivery vans.
"The DA Focus program is focused on training and coaching your DAs to operate with a safety-first, customer-obsessed mindset every day," the Amazon guide intended for delivery service partners (DSPs), the small delivery companies that employ drivers for last-mile Amazon deliveries, reads.
While Amazon's contracted delivery drivers have always faced intense pressure to deliver up to 400 packages on 10-hour shifts, they worry the new disciplinary system, which coincides with this month's announcement that Amazon is rolling out AI-powered cameras in delivery vans to monitor drivers, will add pressure to already stressful jobs and put drivers at increased risk of termination at a job that many drivers say is fundamentally punitive.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new disciplinary policies, but the guide implores DSPs to "please leverage this guide to understand how this program provides you insights into your Delivery Associates’ behavioral Defects and Violations, as well as coaching/retraining mechanisms to prevent them in the future.” The new guide outlines a series of offenses, known as "violations" and "defects," for which Amazon can take disciplinary action against its drivers. Violations, defined as the "most egregious behavior," that result in immediate deactivation of drivers' accounts, such as "public urination," "theft," and "dumping or abandoning customers' packages in unsecured locations," and "unsafe driving leading to major damage."
Defects are lesser offenses and include "throwing packages," "requesting delivery fee/tips for package delivery," "not wearing seat belt while driving," "leaving packages unattended in an insecure location," and "incorrect scan." Some of these, according to drivers, are harder to avoid under intense time constraints and delivery quotas from the company. Four defects in a 120-day period can result in termination, according to the internal document.
These offenses are typically triggered by customer complaints to Amazon that drivers say can be unreasonable or inaccurate, but can be reported in numerous ways. Customer complaints automatically trigger Amazon to issue "defects" to drivers that the owners of DSPs can contest using evidence such as customer notes and a driver's route history during a four-day window, according to the document. Once the four-day window lapses, the defect or violation becomes permanent.
For example, in suburban areas, it's not always possible to deliver packages in secure locations. Drivers say that it can be dangerous for them to follow customer instructions to enter a gated area if there's an aggressive dog behind the barrier or if the driver is a person of color in a predominantly white neighborhood. Drivers also say that sometimes Amazon's rules conflict with customers' requests. Customers will leave a note to put packages in USPS mailboxes, which is a federal crime and a "defect" according to Amazon's guidelines.
"The biggest problem is Amazon's rule about not leaving packages unattended within the bounds of a customer's property," another Amazon delivery driver in Oklahoma said. "There are a lot of neighborhoods where that's not possible, and we're supposed to call the customer, but that takes two minutes minimum if they answer."
"You could have these DAs get dinged for something they didn’t do wrong because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It's happened to me," they continued.
"Amazon incentivizes its customers to complain," a DSP owner in Washington state said. "If the customer says, 'Hey my packages arrived late,' Amazon will give you your item for free. These delivery associates are being disciplined in a system that makes them out to be worse than they are."
Under the old disciplinary policy, Amazon disciplined drivers using a similar but less streamlined process, the DSP owner in Washington said, adding that the new disciplinary program cedes more control to Amazon from DSPs, including the right to choose who gets to keep their job. "This is another way in which Amazon wants to have its cake and eat it too," the DSP owner said. "On paper our employees are our own but in actuality none of this is true. This is a way for Amazon to control who's on the road."
Other traffic offenses, such as speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, tailgating other vehicles, and leaving the van unlocked are sometimes difficult to avoid under Amazon's time constraints to get packages delivered. DSPs take a financial hit anytime drivers return to an Amazon warehouse with undelivered packages. Amazon's new AI-powered surveillance cameras for monitoring delivery drivers, made by Netradyne, have four lenses that capture the road, the driver, and both sides of the vehicle and could be instrumental in detecting many of these behaviors.
"Everything in our job is seconds, such as buckling your seatbelt. If you do something that takes five seconds extra each time you make a stop, like buckle your seatbelt, that could cost you 20 minutes on a 10 hour shift," the Amazon delivery driver in Oklahoma said.
"Personally, I leave the seat belt buckled behind me so I can hop in and out of the van quicker," a delivery driver in California's Inland Empire told Motherboard. "They want us to deliver to do everything within a certain time but they don’t consider the obstacles we might face."
For other drivers, public urination and defecation—cause for termination under the guidelines—can't be avoided on certain routes where bathroom access isn't convenient or available.
"Every single day, I was finding a tree three times a day," a former Amazon delivery driver in Washington state said. "I always carried a water bottle, a roll of dog bags, and some wipes."
Lorena Gonzalez, a state assemblywoman in California, has introduced bills that would require Amazon and other warehouse companies to regulate productivity quotes and ensure bathroom breaks for its warehouse workers.
When Motherboard asked Gonzalez about Amazon's new disciplinary policies for its delivery drivers, she said, "This is another example of why it’s important that workers have a voice in the workplace. Amazon or any delivery companies provide no help for a driver to safely use the restroom. It's a bodily function. We don’t want people urinating or defecating in public. Instead of providing bathrooms, Amazon penalizes the driver."