To get packages on your doorstep in less than two hours and make almost any item you can think of available for purchase online, Amazon relies on a massive, diffuse labor network. Some of these workers are contracted by other companies; some of them contract with Amazon; still others are employees. Some are robots. But all around the organizational chart, their dissatisfaction is causing problems for the company. Workers on Mechanical Turk have long complained that they are underpaid and undercut by the company. In Los Angeles, some workers in a factory that Amazon contracts with are currently on strike, BuzzFeed News reported last month. The Huffington Post just ran an excruciating story about a Virginia contract factory worker who died on the job in 2013.
Even at the top, things may not be much better. A New York Times article that portrayed Amazon as a grueling place to work was revived in the public eye last week when Amazon's Jay Carney publicly contested the trustworthiness of some of the sources in the story. (After the story was published, the ACLU paid for a full-page ad in the Seattle Times asking disgruntled Amazon employees to contact them with potential lawsuits; BuzzFeed News has not gotten a response to an inquiry asking whether any employees had responded.) While the story of a PR executive routing around the press by publishing his concerns directly to Medium dominated the conversation of late, it didn't totally drown out the central question: Is Amazon, a company that has in many ways revolutionized labor, a good place to work?
After this week, it seems we can add another four people to the roster of those who have come out and said it's not.
Four Amazon contractors — drivers who worked for Prime Now, Amazon's two-hour local delivery service, and were hired through a third-party contracting company — have proposed a lawsuit against the company, accusing Amazon of misclassifying them as contractors.
The drivers, their lawyer Beth Ross argues, should be classified as employees for a number of reasons, including that they work shifts rather than on a gig basis, have to wear shirts and hats with company branding, and are told by the company where to be and when. In addition, the workers are concerned that the cost of gas, tolls, and other incidental expenditures makes their total income below the legal minimum wage in California. (Amazon advertises that the drivers will make around $20 an hour; the minimum wage in California, where these workers live, is $9.)
Ross, who has been working a similar case against FedEx for a number of years, says her case is much firmer than other misclassification cases against tech companies, such as the high-profile legal battle over contract labor of the moment, the one Shannon Liss-Riordan is fighting over Uber. "Once they pick their schedule, they're on the schedule," Ross told BuzzFeed News of her clients and their fellow Prime Now contractors. "They work eight hours, they get paid by the hour, and then they go home. It's as different from Uber as it could be."
Incidentally, Amazon recently launched a program for on-demand local delivery that is actually a lot like Uber. Flex allows drivers to pick up and deliver packages using an app, the same way Uber drivers deliver people. A rep for Amazon said the company is always experimenting with new ways to get packages to doorsteps faster, relying on a combo of FedEx, USPS, UPS, DHL, and more to do so.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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