Weird (Amazon) Flex, But Okay : Planet Money Nearly half of Amazon's packages are delivered not by UPS or USPS, but by the company itself. Amazon employs thousands of gig workers to make its deliveries, administering them through an app called Amazon Flex.
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Weird (Amazon) Flex, But Okay

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Weird (Amazon) Flex, But Okay

Weird (Amazon) Flex, But Okay

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: And I'm Adrian Ma. I'm a reporter at WBUR in Boston.

VANEK SMITH: And Adrian, you came to us with a story about Amazon.

MA: Right.

VANEK SMITH: And of course, we could not resist.

MA: Yes. So if you're among the millions of Americans who buy stuff on Amazon, you probably know the feeling, right? You get home. You see that brown box by your door, and you think, sweet, it's that thing I ordered.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, so good. It's like mini-Christmas without the terrible airports.

MA: Yes, exactly. And you know, you see that box. You have this warm, fuzzy feeling inside. But do you ever stop to think about the person who brought you that box? Now, if your first guess was maybe the postal worker or the UPS driver, you'd be about 50% right.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. According to a recent estimate by Morgan Stanley, almost half of Amazon shipments are actually delivered by Amazon itself. And often, the final drop is made by one of thousands of gig workers hired through this app called Amazon Flex.

MA: How much of your week do you spend doing Flex?

LYNNE: Oh, my goodness - pretty much every waking hour that I'm not eating or sleeping (laughter).

MA: This is Lynne. We're only using her first name here because she's worried speaking to a reporter could affect her ability to get work from Amazon. Lynne used to be an administrative assistant, but a couple of years ago, she quit and dove headfirst into the gig economy.

LYNNE: Once I realized that there were other jobs out there that were a lot more convenient, a lot more flexible, I never really looked back once I started.

VANEK SMITH: Soon, Amazon Flex went from being Lynne's side hustle to her main source of income.

MA: It became her front hustle.

VANEK SMITH: Her front hustle.

MA: So Lynne is among the roughly 1% of U.S. workers who make a living through online gig work. And to better understand what this particular gig involves, we took a ride.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, you did. And today on the show, we go with you on this ride, and we look at an often unseen part of the delivery workforce.

MA: Also, we examine the trade-offs that come when a gig replaces a job.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

MA: Can you, like, walk me through? How does this thing work?

LYNNE: Sure. So this is the main page right here. It's the home page. It's basically...

MA: At her home in central Massachusetts, Lynne pulls up the Amazon Flex app on her phone. On-screen is a list of what they call blocks - basically shifts of two to four hours where she can sign up to deliver stuff. And next to each shift is a dollar amount for how much she can earn.

VANEK SMITH: Which sounds pretty simple, but here's the tricky part. The dollar amounts for the blocks will change.

LYNNE: Usually, the closer it gets to the starting time, the rates will start to raise. And it's kind of like a game to see how high you can get it before that block disappears on you.

MA: The wonky term for this is dynamic pricing, and it means she's got to be strategic. Grab a block too soon, and she could be leaving money on the table.

VANEK SMITH: Way too long, and someone else might grab it.

LYNNE: You keep on having to do this. Swipe down on the app. It refreshes. And you basically have to do that constantly throughout the day to see what's available for work.

MA: Lynne says the feeling of catching a block is addictive. And on the good days, it pays a lot more than she used to make as an administrative assistant.

VANEK SMITH: And the day that you were there, Adrian, Lynne booked a 3 1/2-hour shift for 95 bucks. And then you guys went for a ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

MA: We did. So on that afternoon, we hop in her sedan and drive to a nearby Amazon warehouse. And when we got there, she drove past a bunch of big trucks and entered this building through a big door. Half the space was taken up by basically this, like, big metal tower and this network of chutes and conveyor belts. And then next to that was a long row of parking spaces. And so Lynne drove over to one of these spots, where a shelf full of boxes and envelopes was already waiting for her. And then to find out where it all went, she took out her phone.

LYNNE: Kind of scans it, downloads the packages onto my phone. And looks like I'm going to Worcester - not my favorite place to go to.

MA: No shade on Worcester. She said it was actually the roads there are kind of rough.

VANEK SMITH: Sure, it's the roads.

MA: (Laughter) So you know, as she was loading up the car, I noticed that some of these packages are pretty big. Like, there was a fancy pressure cooker, a child's car seat, a fish aquarium.

LYNNE: I break a lot of nails doing this job.

MA: But she managed to get the car packed up. And once she did, the rest of her afternoon basically went like this. She drives to a house, grabs a package and carefully traverses the snow-covered walkway. And, ignoring the scary-sounding dog, she drops off the package and scans the label to let Amazon know it's done.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

MA: Over the next few hours, Lynne repeats this process 18 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot of times and a lot of dogs.

MA: OK. There weren't 18 dogs.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

MA: And you know, Lynne told me, like, 18 stops is actually a pretty easy shift. Often, she'll make 30 or 40 stops in one go.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, this sounds exactly like a UPS job or a mail carrier.

MA: Yeah. And just like a mail carrier, Lynne has to deal with bad roads, hungry dogs, lousy weather - oh, and slip and falls. Like, she told me about this one time when she slipped on a customer's wet stone walkway.

LYNNE: And my feet went straight out from under me, and I landed right on my back. And it went so hard that my teeth, like, clinked together. And I think the guy inside must've heard me because he peered out the door and said, are you OK? And I said, I think so. And he said, all right, and then shut the door - didn't even help me up. So I was like, OK.

MA: I swear that people in Massachusetts are nice.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, I suppose he asked if she was OK. That's something.

MA: Yes. But you know, it's a pretty scary thing to happen. And stories like this are why some experts are critical of Amazon Flex, like David Weil. He's a professor studying labor policy at Brandeis University.

DAVID WEIL: The mail deliver who came to your house to deliver a package or the UPS driver was an employee of those companies, and they would be protected by a whole set of workplace laws.

MA: If they get injured on the job, they might get workers' comp, or their union might help. If they face harassment or discrimination, civil rights laws might cover them. But these don't apply to Flex drivers because they're not technically employees.

VANEK SMITH: And Adrian, you reached out to Amazon for this story, and they were pretty clear with you. They consider Flex drivers to be independent contractors.

MA: But David Weil - he's pretty skeptical of this label.

WEIL: A real independent contractor - the key word there is independent.

MA: And through the Flex app, Amazon exerts a lot of control over when drivers work and how much it pays. It also tracks their performance and punishes those that fail to meet a certain standard.

WEIL: When you have that much control over what a worker does and the consequences of failing to do that, we call that employment.

MA: At least Weil does. He argues there ought to be laws that give Flex drivers and other gig workers the kinds of protections employees get - protections that could help folks like Lynne. Right now, if she breaks her arm making a delivery, she has to figure out how to pay for it. And while she's laid up, of course she's not making money.

VANEK SMITH: And Adrian, you talked to Lynne. Like, how did she feel about this?

MA: She says it might be nice to have some more benefits but not if it means losing the flexibility she expects from gig work.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, interesting.

MA: Yeah. But there's an irony here. Lynne has flexibility, but also, she says she works a lot harder than she used to. While we were on the road together, she told me she spends about 35 hours a week driving. And then there's all the time she spends on her phone swiping and just trying to get a shift.

LYNNE: My day is taken up between looking for work, doing work and then squeezing in a bite to eat here and there, which can be difficult.

MA: Does that, like, affect your social life?

LYNNE: What social life? (Laughter).

MA: And that schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for things like shopping either, which she says is actually fine because if there's ever anything she needs to buy, she can usually find it on Amazon.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, no (laughter). It all comes back around.

MA: There is no escape.

VANEK SMITH: Amazon wins in the end.

MA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Today's episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR. Also, we would love your money etiquette questions. Like, maybe your friend lent you money, and you're not sure how to ask for it back, or maybe there's a tipping situation that's thrown you for a loop. Send us your questions. That's indicator@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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