In order to deliver all those next-day deliveries on time, Amazon uses millions of subcontracted drivers for its Flex delivery programme, started in 2015. Drivers sign up via a smartphone app where they can choose shifts, coordinate deliveries and report problems. Think of Uber’s false sense of freedom for its employees and you’ve pretty much got the same thing happening here with Amazon Flex. But the reliance on technology doesn’t end there as drivers are also monitored for performance and fired by algorithms with little human intervention, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
As much as we love and depend on algorithms, it’s crucial that we understand how even those can mess up from time to time. According to the report, the AI system used by Amazon Flex can often fire workers seemingly without good cause. One worker said her rating—ranging from Fantastic, Great, Fair, or At Risk—fell after she was forced to halt deliveries due to a nail in her tire.
Over the next several weeks, she managed to boost it to Great but her account was eventually terminated for violating Amazon’s terms of service. She contested the firing, but the company wouldn’t reinstate her.
Another driver was unable to deliver packages to an apartment complex because its gate was closed and the residents wouldn’t answer their phones. Shortly after, in another building, an Amazon locker failed to open. His rating quickly dropped and he spent six weeks trying to raise it, only to be fired for falling below a prescribed level.
In those instances, when a driver feels they’re wrongly terminated, there’s not much recourse, either. Drivers must pay $200 to dispute any termination, and many have said it’s simply not worth the effort. “Whenever there’s an issue, there’s no support,” said Cope, 29. “It’s you against the machine, so you don’t even try.”
Amazon became the world’s largest online retailer in part by outsourcing its many different operations to algorithms. For years, the company has used algorithms to manage the millions of third-party merchants on its online marketplace, drawing complaints that sellers have been booted off after being falsely accused of selling counterfeit goods and jacking up prices.
More and more, the company is also ceding its human-resources operation to machines, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers. People familiar with the strategy say Jeff Bezos believes machines make decisions more quickly and accurately than people, reducing costs and giving Amazon a competitive advantage.
Inside Amazon, the programme has been praised for its success. Around 4 million drivers have downloaded the app worldwide including 2.9 million in the US, according to Bloomberg’s report. More than 660,000 people in the US have downloaded the app in the last five months alone.
Amazon said drivers’ claims of poor treatment and unfair termination were anecdotal and don’t represent the experience of the vast majority of Flex drivers. “We have invested heavily in technology and resources to provide drivers visibility into their standing and eligibility to continue delivering, and investigate all driver appeals,” Spokesperson Kate Kudrna told Bloomberg.
A discrimination lawsuit by an Amazon senior manager unpacks a hard truth: Amazon’s public statements claim that the company affirms its commitment to racial equity, but evidently, actions portray otherwise. What’s really going on behind the world’s largest techy retailer’s doors?
Charlotte Newman, a senior manager for Amazon’s cloud-computing division called Amazon Web Services (AWS), filed a federal lawsuit on Monday 1 March, 2021, in Washington DC, alleging that the commerce giant was paying her less than similarly qualified, white peers. She also said that executives used racial stereotypes to justify denying her opportunities for promotion within the company’s ranks. That isn’t all, Newman also leveled allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a former Amazon director.
Douglas Wigdor, Newman’s lawyer who is also known for previously representing victims of alleged sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, wrote in the filed complaint that “Like so many other Black and female employees at Amazon, Charlotte Newman was confronted with a systemic pattern of insurmountable discrimination based upon the colour of her skin and her gender.”
The discrimination began, as reported by Recode in an interview with Newman, when she was first hired at a level lower for a public policy manager role than she initially applied for, which she believes her qualifications justified. She told interviewers that “the discrimination continued when she was denied a promotion for more than a year even though she was performing aspects of the more senior role and had begun pushing her manager to assign her to a higher level.”
In the autumn of 2019, Newman was elevated to a senior manager position, which was in fact more than two and a half years after being hired. She said that what actually made matters worse, was that her first boss, an AWS director named Steve Block, employed what she believed were racial stereotypes in telling her that her communication style was “too direct,” and “just scary,” and that she “can intimidate people.”
As reported by The Washington Post, Newman’s complaint states that a different and unnamed colleague told Newman she looked like “a gorilla” when she put on a black jacket. The colleague apologised after Newman noted how offensive the comment was, according to the suit.
Newman’s allegations also point towards a former AWS director named Andres Maz, who was a senior colleague and reportedly sexually harassed her on multiple occasions including propositioning her for sex. The complaint accuses Maz of pressing on her lap and groping her thigh under a table at a work dinner, among other assaulting occasions. A complaint filed by Newman was conducted internally in June of 2020, which resulted in a termination of his employment.
“There’s been deep emotional pain,” Newman told Recode, “All of the hard work, all of the sacrifices I made, my education—none of that saved me from someone who’s a predator and living in fear of what else he might do.”
Her discomfort was pushed further yet again, as she couldn’t report the awful behaviour to her managers for fear of retaliation. One manager being Shannon Kellogg, who allegedly relied on feedback from Maz on Newman’s performance.
An Amazon spokesperson, Kate Brinks, responded after the publication of this case with a statement saying “Amazon works hard to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture, and these allegations do not reflect those efforts or our values. We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action. We are currently investigating the new allegations included in this lawsuit.”
Newman’s suit was filed after Recode published an investigation the week prior, which gave her the confidence to speak publicly herself. The report detailed allegations by other Amazon employees that black corporate workers were facing bias and an unlevel playing field to their non-black peers. Newman stated, “I strongly believe that Amazon should be harnessing the light of diverse leadership rather than dimming the light of Black employees and other employees of colour,” and continued, “For years I had been sort of suffering in silence, [but] I’m sure there are a lot of people who now feel more empowered to add their voices to the story, and hopefully there’s some real change that occurs.”