The Amazon Delivery Service Worker Who’d Finally Seen Enough

As a driver for an Amazon subcontractor, Frank Chavez encountered unsanitary conditions—including bottles of his coworkers’ urine. Now he’s standing up for his rights.

Michelle Chen and Molly Crabapple

Amazon worker Frank Chavez Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

When aspir­ing engi­neer Frank Chavez (a pseu­do­nym) took a job deliv­er­ing pack­ages for Ama­zon after grad­u­at­ing from col­lege last Decem­ber and mov­ing back home with his fam­i­ly in Los Ange­les, he thought he’d found a short-term gig to help cov­er the bills. Then the pan­dem­ic explod­ed in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, its accom­pa­ny­ing reces­sion cloud­ing his future prospects. Soon Amazon’s boom­ing e‑tail empire became his main source of income.

Chavez says his job has got­ten tougher over the past few months. While he start­ed out deliv­er­ing about 230 pack­ages per day, mak­ing over 100 stops for a local ful­fill­ment cen­ter, those num­bers have bal­looned dur­ing the pan­dem­ic to 300, 320, 350 pack­ages, with [as many as] 160 stops. So it was a big spike; [the] num­ber of pack­ages and stops just increased.” In addi­tion, he and his cowork­ers noticed that rather than deliv­er­ing to just one address like they had before, “[My employ­er] start­ed group­ing a lot of the hous­es into one sin­gle stack. I find myself going to three dif­fer­ent hous­es for every stop.” 

Dri­vers face intense pres­sure to fin­ish their deliv­er­ies with­in their shift. “[They] roll their ankles all the time” when rush­ing from deliv­ery to deliv­ery, he says.

While Amazon’s ful­fill­ment cen­ters are noto­ri­ous for mak­ing work­ers pack box­es at a break­neck pace, dri­vers face a dif­fer­ent set of risks when cov­er­ing the so-called last mile” of the route from the ful­fill­ment cen­ter to cus­tomers’ doorsteps. Last-mile deliv­ery, a com­plex and cost­ly com­po­nent of Amazon’s oper­a­tions, is often sub­con­tract­ed to part­ners” or third-par­ty deliv­ery ser­vices with which the com­pa­ny sup­plies its brand­ed vans, uni­forms and nav­i­ga­tion tech­nol­o­gy. Oth­er couri­ers are employed through Amazon’s Flex ser­vice as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and dri­ve their own cars. Since Ama­zon does not offi­cial­ly employ these work­ers, it avoids direct lia­bil­i­ty when they run into trou­ble. Deliv­ery dri­vers have been involved in about 60 seri­ous vehi­cle acci­dents since 2015, accord­ing to a 2019 analy­sis by ProP­ub­li­ca.

The pan­dem­ic is a very scary time for the dri­vers,” Chavez says, because we see the major­i­ty of work­ers are stay­ing at home, yet we still keep get­ting called out to go deliv­er.” He also notes that his employ­er, an Ama­zon con­trac­tor, was not pro­vid­ing staff with basic pro­tec­tive equip­ment for their routes.

When Chavez approached his super­vi­sors to demand masks, gloves, and hand san­i­tiz­er, he recalls, “[They] were kind of dis­mis­sive. They [said the com­pa­ny] does­n’t have the mon­ey to pay for this type of stuff, so this is some­thing that Ama­zon has to do for you guys.’”

Chavez was intim­i­dat­ed to speak out, ini­tial­ly. For the most part,” he says, my cowork­ers are pret­ty qui­et on this stuff. [We would] talk about it amongst each oth­er and say, Hey, you know, we don’t have any, any masks. That’s messed up. … They should be tak­ing care of us.’ But we won’t say any­thing out loud because we don’t want to be seen as trou­ble­mak­ers. There’s this idea that if we start to speak up, we could get in trouble.”

Though he had not been at the com­pa­ny long, Chavez soon dis­cov­ered he wasn’t on his own. A few days after ask­ing about per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment, he says, his employ­er start­ed to dis­trib­ute the gear to work­ers. He would lat­er learn that Ama­zon had been pres­sured by the Ware­house Work­er Resource Cen­ter (WWRC) — an orga­ni­za­tion based in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia that had cir­cu­lat­ed peti­tions on the work­ers’ behalf and urged Ama­zon to pro­vide equip­ment to both its dri­vers and its ful­fill­ment cen­ter employees.

Chavez has since joined his fel­low dri­vers in work­ing with the WWRC to address these kinds of issues, some of which pre­date the pan­dem­ic. As part of the group’s wider cam­paign to orga­nize work­ers across Ama­zon’s oper­a­tions, the dri­vers are plan­ning a cam­paign for over­time hours and sched­ules that do not over­work them, in addi­tion to clean vans. (Work­ers cur­rent­ly share their vehi­cles and have just 15 min­utes at the start of each shift to dis­in­fect the cabins.)

Although Ama­zon would not com­ment on the specifics of Chavez’s work­ing con­di­tions at an anony­mous deliv­ery ser­vice, spokesper­son Lisa Levandows­ki said in a state­ment, we are doing every­thing we can to keep [work­ers] as safe as pos­si­ble.” The com­pa­ny claims that it has dis­trib­uted masks to deliv­ery ser­vice part­ners, that all deliv­ery vehi­cles and equip­ment are dis­in­fect­ed each day, and deliv­ery devices and mobile phones are dis­in­fect­ed after each deliv­ery appoint­ment,” and that it has estab­lished the Ama­zon Relief Fund, which sup­ports dri­vers and oth­er sub­con­tract­ed work­ers affect­ed by COVID-19 or finan­cial hardship.

For Chavez, the prob­lems run deep­er than dis­in­fect­ed vans. San­i­ta­tion as a whole had tak­en a back­seat before the pan­dem­ic, he says, with dri­vers often leav­ing pee bot­tles” behind at the end of a shift. Dri­vers resort to bot­tles not only because they are too rushed to take a bath­room break but because their usu­al pit stops — fast food restau­rants — have denied them access to their restrooms due to fears about the coro­n­avirus’ spread. We have to com­pro­mise,” Chavez says, and some­times that [means] using a bot­tle or going in pub­lic. … These con­di­tions demor­al­ize us.”

Still, encour­ag­ing fel­low employ­ees to speak out can be a chal­lenge when work is so pre­car­i­ous. The com­pa­ny, he says, makes work­ers feel like we’re replace­able at any minute, espe­cial­ly right now with COVID…[They give the] impres­sion that there’s peo­ple that are going to be look­ing for work, so we kind of have to stay in our lane.” When peo­ple have raised con­cerns about safe­ty and san­i­ta­tion with the human resources depart­ment, he adds, they tell us that we have the option to resign.”

Chavez claims he and his cowork­ers were gal­va­nized when they saw that oth­er Ama­zon work­ers at a New York ful­fill­ment cen­ter had walked off the job. We were all talk­ing about it,” he rec­ol­lects. Like Hey, we should do the same, you know?’” But soon after­ward, they were dis­heart­ened to learn that one of the work­ers involved in the protest, Chris Smalls, had been fired—“a big sign that they could basi­cal­ly find a way to get rid of us if we try to organize.”

Still, Chavez has con­tin­ued meet­ing with the WWRC along­side some of his co-work­ers. But it is unclear how long any of the dri­vers will remain employed since Ama­zon announced it was cut­ting con­tracts with sev­er­al deliv­ery con­trac­tors (includ­ing Chavez’s, accord­ing to WWRC), trig­ger­ing some 1200 lay­offs. Unlike many of his fel­low dri­vers, he aims to move on to anoth­er job soon, and he wants to help those who feel like their voic­es are not being heard.”

Ama­zon has pre­vi­ous­ly stat­ed its oppo­si­tion to union­iza­tion at its ful­fill­ment cen­ters and has been accused of using sur­veil­lance and intim­i­da­tion to sup­press orga­niz­ing among its work­force. Although the WWRC is not a union, Chavez wants the company’s dri­vers to learn how to advo­cate for them­selves, so they could have some rep­re­sen­ta­tion [and have] a clear voice that gets a mes­sage across that [reflects] the needs of the workers.”

His inspi­ra­tion to act, he says, comes from watch­ing his moth­er work fac­to­ry jobs his entire life.

A lot of times she would not speak out on unsafe work conditions…because she was undoc­u­ment­ed,” he reflects, so a lot of fac­to­ries took advan­tage of her labor and real­ly didn’t show appre­ci­a­tion. I could­n’t … pro­tect her when I was grow­ing up, so now I feel like I could try to help oth­er people.”

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Mol­ly Crabap­ple, an artist and writer in New York, is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.

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