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Shortcuts and a need for speed: Inside Amazon's delivery ramp up

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Meredith Miotke for NBC News
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At one Amazon delivery facility last year near St. Petersburg, Florida, company badges hung on wall hooks, each one showing the name and photo of an approved driver.

Every morning, drivers including those who had not passed background checks grabbed one before going out on the road, even if the badges had someone else's name and photo on them. In other cases, drivers didn't even bother with a badge. The practices were tacitly accepted by Amazon managers who had delivery quotas to meet, according to current and former employees of Amazon as well as contractors who spoke to NBC News.

As a result, potentially dangerous drivers would be handed the keys to delivery vans full of packages, as well as sensitive information such as the addresses and access codes needed to deliver the packages, these people said.

"They would say, 'OK, get it done,'" a former delivery company manager said. "And as long as it was delivered before deadline that day, that would make their location look amazing, they may turn their head."

At other Amazon locations around the United States, similar scenes played out. At a facility in the Northeast, a former driver said he drove a truck using other people's credentials for months because his background check didn't clear. When he needed to log in to an electronic scanner — called a "rabbit" — that drivers carry, he would use someone else's password.

And at another delivery facility in the South, a current Amazon employee recounted how Amazon management knew one of the company's courier contractors was skirting background checks but chose to ignore it, despite what the employee called a risk to data privacy and customer safety.

Former managers who were aware of similar conduct said they were under pressure to meet rising demand and were worried that even drivers who had passed background checks were not adequately prepared for delivery routes that sometimes filled trucks beyond normal capacity and put them in dangerous situations.

NBC News spoke with 18 people in 11 states who detailed safety problems across the e-commerce giant's delivery operation. They included 13 current or former Amazon employees familiar with the company's "last mile" delivery program and five people who worked for Amazon-contracted delivery companies. Many asked that their names be withheld due to fear of retaliation or professional consequences from coming forward.

Amazon operates an extensive network of fulfillment, sortation and delivery centers around the U.S. employing more than 250,000 people, as well as thousands more contractors.

And while their accounts vary on how the company's operation suffered under the strain of an influx of packages, they share a common theme: Amazon's efforts to ramp up its own delivery system strained a logistical network that had not had adequate time to prepare.

It's a complaint common among employees of tech giants: the companies push systems beyond their limit, and then figure out where the limit was and try to clean up problems after the fact.

Some people who deliver Amazon packages have been involved in deadly wrecks. In September, ProPublica and The New York Times reported in a joint investigation that they had found more than 60 crashes since June 2015 involving Amazon delivery contractors that resulted in serious injuries, including 10 deaths. They said the tally was likely a fraction of the crashes because many people don't sue.

BuzzFeed reported in August that Amazon has generally avoided legal liability in such cases, leaving contractors on the hook, although the company has tight control over how those contractors operate.

Inside Amazon warehouses, the rate of serious injuries is more than double the national average for the industry, according to the nonprofit news outlet Reveal and the Atlantic magazine, which analyzed records from 23 of 110 fulfillment centers. Amazon told the outlets that its rates are high because it is aggressive about recording injuries and cautious about allowing the injured to resume work before they're ready.

Safety concerns within Amazon's logistics system and among third-party drivers have been well documented, but current and former employees said that the desire to ramp up delivery volume while also avoiding the liability inherent to getting packages to consumers as quickly as possible created previously unreported safety issues — some of which these people said Amazon knew about.

Karamo Rowe, who delivered Amazon packages for a contracted delivery company for several months this year, called the experience "chaos." Initially, he was attracted to the job because of what he believed would be opportunities to advance. But when he was given more than 300 packages to deliver in a single shift each day, it made him "do things you normally wouldn't do as a human being."

"You don't take your lunch break. You don't use the bathroom. ... There were guys peeing in bottles in the van," Rowe said, adding that he did the same. "You speed. You run stop signs in a neighborhood. ...You start conditioning yourself to just go as fast as possible."

Amazon trucks leave the Amazon regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Las Vegas.
Amazon trucks leave the Amazon regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Las Vegas.George Frey

In response to questions from NBC News, Amazon said that it operates a safe delivery network and requires delivery contractors to follow all applicable laws and company regulations. It said it audits contractors for compliance and, when it finds violations, requires improvement or terminates contracts.

Amazon said it would be a violation of policy for someone to deliver packages without a background check. It did not say how it enforces that policy, or how often it has received reports of violations.

Unchecked

At Amazon delivery stations, where vans are loaded with packages for customers, a driver isn't supposed to leave unless he's got an Amazon-issued badge. It's company policy, and someone is supposed to check the drivers' badges on their way out.

But it doesn't always happen that way, five people said, either because a driver can use someone else's badge or the security is lax enough at a facility that they don't need a badge at all.

Background checks aren't necessarily comprehensive when they happen, one former Amazon manager said. He said he found out that one driver had prior criminal charges for assault and burglary only after the driver had begun work and was discovered throwing packages into a wooded area. The background check on the driver had been limited to one county in another state, the manager said.

Current and former employees of Amazon and its local delivery contractors said the incentives within the company's delivery army are set up to tolerate such practices: the penalty for using drivers who haven't cleared a background check may be just a warning, but if a contractor doesn't have enough drivers to finish its routes, it faces a financial penalty from Amazon and, over time, termination, three people said.

Amazon may take weeks to finish a background check for an otherwise qualified hire, current and former managers said, while a delivery company may want to put a new hire to work immediately, fearful the person may move elsewhere in a tight labor market.

Amazon did not make anyone from the company available for an interview, and several company executives did not respond to requests for comment.

"This is a comprehensive process that can take time," Amazon said in a written statement about its background check procedures. "The vast majority of background checks are completed in less than a week, with many completed in less than three days."

For a background check that takes longer, Amazon said, the delay is necessary "to work with the applicant to verify the information provided and make sure we give them an opportunity to correct any inconsistencies in the information we may have found."

Amazon said that drivers have several ways of filing complaints, including a hotline, and that such complaints have led it to sever ties with some third-party delivery companies, which Amazon calls delivery service providers, or DSPs.

Primed

Amazon, in a major shift, now delivers about half its own packages, cutting its reliance on traditional services such as UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service, according to data from the market research firm Rakuten Intelligence. And that's before Amazon introduces drone delivery, a capability it has talked about for years and said in June would arrive "within months."

Part of its strategy is that an in-house delivery system — which it began to ramp up in 2014 — may be less likely to buckle under the pressure of the holiday season. In December 2013, there were more last-minute packages than traditional companies could handle in time for Christmas, creating a fiasco and prompting Amazon and UPS to issue some refunds.

The importance of having its own delivery network has since only grown as Amazon accelerated its business plans to include more one- and two-day deliveries, as well as grocery drop-offs.

But the realities of putting a network in place have put a strain on that idea, because unlike traditional delivery companies, Amazon hasn't been able to draw on years of internal experience and operational knowledge.

A South Lake Union streetcar with an advertisement for Amazon.com\'s same-day delivery service passes by an Amazon office building on Nov. 13, 2018, in Seattle.
A South Lake Union streetcar with an advertisement for Amazon.com\'s same-day delivery service passes by an Amazon office building on Nov. 13, 2018, in Seattle.Ted S. Warren

The result has been a chaotic environment on many of its delivery routes, in which drivers frequently quit citing impossible-to-meet quotas and exhausted drivers put themselves in risky situations, according to current and former employees of Amazon and its contractors.

"Those are close calls every single day, worrying you're going to hit a car or a person," said Ami Swerdlick, a former delivery driver for an independent contractor, who quit last year. "It was going to kill me if I didn't stop doing it."

Hanging over Amazon and all U.S. delivery services is a national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, around the lowest in 50 years, making new drivers difficult to find, current and former managers said.

Amazon's legion of delivery drivers is about to face its biggest test yet as online holiday shopping this year is forecast to hit yet another record.

Amazon has shown signs of changing its delivery operations to address problems. For example, the retailer is standardizing more of the vans used in delivery, rather than always requiring delivery contractors to supply their own vans.

Accelerated

A former Amazon logistics employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she left with the impression that Amazon was reckless in its approach.

"Amazon builds the plane while they're flying it," the former employee said. "They'll try something like, it will be absolutely insane, and they'll finally kind of regulate it and put the proper mechanisms in place to make it work."

She said she was put in charge of managing people without any management training, and that some drivers were assigned routes that took hours longer to complete than Amazon had anticipated.

In a statement, Amazon said: "Amazon operates a safe delivery network and to state otherwise is simply not true. There are tens of thousands of drivers delivering tens of millions of packages to customers every week, almost all without incident.

"Unfortunately, statistically at this scale, traffic incidents have occurred and will occur again, but these are exceptions, and we will not be satisfied until we achieve zero incidents across our delivery operations," the company said.

Packages ride on a conveyor system at an Amazon fulfillment center.
Packages ride on a conveyor system at an Amazon fulfillment center.Patrick Semansky

Amazon said that safety is its top priority, and that it requires contract delivery companies to comply with all applicable safety, labor and transportation regulations, and that it does not put undue pressure on contractors. Many former employees of Amazon and its contractors said that safety was frequently mentioned in training and in staff announcements, but that when it came time to do the job, they believed the system was set up to make on-time delivery -- not safety -- the top priority.

Though local delivery companies it hires are independently owned, Amazon controls how packages are delivered. It determines the routes and package loads for each driver and often requires them to wear Amazon uniforms. It requires classroom and on-the-road training for new hires.

Amazon can't control its contractors in every way, though. A former Amazon manager said she saw people get fired from one local delivery company and then get hired with another one when both had contracts with Amazon, because the e-commerce giant did not have an adequate system in place to vet applicants.

"There would be people that would go between companies," she said.

Amazon said in a written statement that fired drivers could not be rehired by other contractors and any allegation otherwise was "absolutely false." It did not provide details on how it tries to prevent that. The company said that if it identifies shortcomings with a contractor, it expects the contractor to put in place a plan within 30 days to correct the problems or risk having its contract terminated.

Pushed

An influx of packages created pressure-cooker situations at Amazon facilities in which employees and delivery companies were expected to meet strict daily quotas for the number of packages delivered, former managers and drivers said. Amazon expects near perfection each day — with an expectation of 98 percent on-time delivery, according to two former managers.

Current and former drivers complain about being overloaded and say that the volume at Amazon facilities is too high for the staff available, a labor squeeze that's only become more difficult as Amazon and its rivals add more delivery services for groceries or prepared food.

Some vans were packed so full that packages would improperly block the view out the rear windows, two former Amazon employees said.

A former Amazon manager who worked at multiple locations said drivers would do whatever they could — including speeding and throwing packages — to meet their quotas, and that he eventually stopped firing people for such offenses because the drivers' actions seemed justified given the pressure from Amazon.

"It was the only way they could get the job done on time and not get scrutinized by someone like me," the former manager said. He said his complaints to regional management fell on "deaf ears" and weren't taken seriously.

Current and former employees said there were some ways that Amazon did emphasize safety, such as by making safety signs ubiquitous inside the warehouses or by strictly enforcing some rules, such as a ban on backing up a vehicle inside a warehouse.

Amazon said in response to written questions that it works closely with contract companies to set "realistic expectations that do not place undue pressure on them or their employees," using routing software. "We have policies and mechanisms in place to limit the number of hours that drivers are on the road," the company said.

Kenneth, a former driver, said he believes there was a disconnect in Amazon's thinking: high concern about what happens inside a warehouse, where Amazon has long experience, but less worrying when it comes to drivers.

"Once the packages are out the door, they didn't care," he said.

The pressure can get worse leading up to the holiday season. During these weeks, the third-party delivery companies hire more people, but those people don't always get enough training and end up over their heads, one former Amazon manager said.

"We'd send them out with 50,000 packages, but then they'd bring back 10,000 because they didn't know what they were doing. They weren't trained. They just got lost. It was dark," the manager said, describing the 2018 holiday season.

Scaled

Amazon's quick ramp-up of its last-mile delivery program echoes a common way of doing business in the tech sector: grow to a large scale quickly, before figuring out the details, in order to box out potential competitors or gain other advantages.

But what may work for companies that deal primarily in websites and computer code may not have the same results on the streets, and former Amazon employees said they doubted whether the company could sustain its model over time given the rate at which it churns through drivers and managers.

It wasn't until after Amazon began to grow its delivery system to a much larger scale in the U.S. that the company, around 2016, began to analyze the program and find that it wasn't running as smoothly as it should have been, former employees said.

"We would find that some drivers were being given more packages than they could ever plausibly deliver, and other drivers were being given just a few and then told, 'Return to the base. You're done for the day,'" one former Amazon employee said. "We needed to really kind of stop and take a breath."

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