The human toll of Amazon's two-day delivery

R m. Graph, vans queue up to leave an Amazon delivery center in suburban Englewood, Colo
David Zalubowski/AP/Shutterstock
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There's no denying the convenience of Amazon Prime. You can get the goods that you want delivered right to your doorstep just one or two days after you fill your online shopping cart. The logistics required to get all of those packages to their destination on time is one of the company's greatest strengths, but it comes at a cost, often to the drivers making Amazon's deliveries. In order to fulfill and deliver orders with such a quick turnaround, a lot of pressure falls onto the drivers, and recent reports from ProPublica and BuzzFeed News show Amazon delivery drivers are cutting corners in order to meet the demand placed on them by Amazon.

According to the reports, Amazon has built up a significant army of contractors, made available through small shipping and delivery companies that work with the giant online retailer. Those contractors allow Amazon to move away from services like the United States Postal Service and major carriers like UPS while building out a nationwide network of operators who can get packages from warehouses to doorsteps. The drivers tasked with those jobs aren't permanent Amazon employees, which allows the company to add more drivers or ditch ones that it feels it needs essentially at will. It also gives the drivers little recourse to organize or push back against Amazon, which puts extraordinarily lofty expectations on every part of its supply chain.

According to ProPublica, the company expects 999 out of every 1,000 packages shipped to be delivered on time. A report from Business Insider last year suggested that each driver is expected to deliver between 250 to 300 packages per day, jumping to 400 or more during holiday seasons. In order to ensure that is happening, the company has implemented tactics to keep drivers on the road and on task. The company provides contractors with directions via an app that also allows the company to keep track of the driver. If they fall behind schedule, they'll get a call from a dispatcher. BuzzFeed reported that Amazon gives scanners to some of the delivery companies that it contracts with so that Amazon can keep tabs on the progress of their drivers to ensure packages are being delivered in a timely fashion. In one instance, Amazon reportedly sent messages to a delivery company to criticize it for falling below delivery standards during the holiday season, encouraging the company to keep drivers on the road for as long as possible and do whatever it takes to make sure packages make it to their destination on time. In some cases, per BuzzFeed, that includes telling drivers to stay on the road late into the night, and encouraging them to skip meals, bathroom breaks and any form of rest along the way. Drivers are even discouraged from going home until the last package has been delivered, no matter how late it may be. All of that in exchange for a $160 per day flat fee.

The lack of rest and time off can take a toll on drivers. We know that sitting for extended periods of time is bad for the body. Studies have found that people who spend much of their day driving are less active than their peers and are more likely to be sleep-deprived, stressed and experience weight gain Perhaps most troubling, a 2017 study suggested that spending two or more hours driving each day can contribute to diminishing brain power and is the equivalent to watching TV for three hours. Despite those risks, Amazon's fleet of contractors are expected to be on the road for the majority of their eight-hour shifts, and some are working much longer hours, logging well over 40 hours per week despite not always getting paid for overtime, per Business Insider.

With the high demand of the job and the adverse effects of spending that much time on the road, it is perhaps not surprising that some drivers tasked with delivering Amazon packages have engaged in reckless driving practices. ProPublica was able to track down more than 60 accidents involving Amazon delivery contractors since 2015 that resulted in serious injuries. In 10 of those cases, the crashes resulted in a death. In one case highlighted by ProPublica, a 9-month-old girl was killed in a crash when a 26-foot box truck filled with Amazon packages, driven by a contractor who was running behind schedule, rammed into the back of the Jeep that the child was in. In another instance documented by BuzzFeed, a contractor ran over an 84-year-old woman. She sustained considerable damage, including a crushed diaphragm, broken ribs and a fractured skull, that eventually led to her death.

These instances are heartbreaking, potentially avoidable tragedies that Amazon does not want to take responsibility for. According to reports from BuzzFeed and ProPublica, Amazon often refuses to be held accountable for the actions of its contractors. ProPublica found the company has repeatedly stated in court that contractor agreements require contractors to "defend, indemnify and hold harmless Amazon." Employees from Amazon have also reportedly testified that delivery service partners are supposed to assume all responsibility for legal costs if problems ever arise and that drivers are on the hook to cover "all loss or damage to personal property or bodily harm including death." BuzzFeed found Amazon engaging in similar practices, telling a court “The damages, if any, were caused, in whole or in part, by third parties not under the direction or control of"

The idea that Amazon has no responsibility at all is a pretty tough pill to swallow. Many of the small delivery companies that it contracts work out to rely heavily on Amazon for its business. Amazon sets the standard required of drivers and reportedly encourages companies to push those drivers to their limits to meet increasingly challenging goals. It has also set the standard for two-day shipping, leading to other companies like Walmart and Target to try to keep up and potentially use similar tactics to make sure packages arrive within a tight time-frame. Those tactics — both setting impossibly high benchmarks for drivers to meet and keeping drivers on the road without rest for long periods of time — likely contribute to the type of driving that results in accidents and even deaths. Amazon gets credit from customers when those deliveries go right, because the customers assume it is Amazon that made the package arrive on time. But the company wants to skirt any blame when something goes wrong. It happily passes off the accountability to the person behind working long hours with little rest. It's time for the company to pick a lane.