As California sizzles, Amazon drivers feel the heat over metrics

An Amazon worker pulls a cart of packages for delivery in New York City. Amazon delivery workers say they feel pushed beyond safe limits by the retail giant's strict metrics amid unprecedented heatwave. — AFP

LOS ANGELES: Just two hours into his shift delivering packages for Amazon late last month, Alonzo was hit by a wave of exhaustion.

Temperatures in Temple Hill, California, were forecast to hit a record 112°F (44°C) that day, and it felt even hotter inside the non-airconditioned compartment where he had to load packages into his van.

“I’d never felt that hot before in my life,” he said. “I started to bleed from my nose, and was told to take a 15-minute break,” said the 25-year-old, who asked not to give his full name.

After the quick rest, he continued on his delivery run because he feared taking a longer break could impact the productivity metrics that Inc – the biggest US online retailer – collects on drivers like himself.

California and other parts of the Western United States are seeing an unprecedented heatwave as climate change fuels extreme weather worldwide, and local officials have urged employers to take measures to protect workers from the heat.

Temperatures above 100°F (38°C) lead to a dramatic uptick of more than 15% in worker injury rates in California, a 2021 study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found.

When thermometers hit 115°F (46°C), Amazon’s automated system tells workers to return to their stations and halt work.

And responding to the current heatwave, the company has also shortened some delivery runs, given drivers up to 60 minutes of additional breaks and distributed water and “cooling towels”.

Some of the drivers – who work for the Delivery Service Partners (DSPs) contractors that serve Amazon – have welcomed the measures, saying Amazon is making an effort to keep them safe during the heat.

But more than a dozen drivers and other DSP employees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the steps were not enough, calling for Amazon to ease the pace of work and its algorithmic management system to ensure workers’ safety during heatwaves.

Over recent weeks, drivers have been sharing pictures of temperature readings taken inside their vans in online forums, with many gauges topping 120°F (49°C). In one, the thermometer appears to have broken as the reading nears 125°F (52°C).

“It feels like you’re in an open-air oven all the time,” said Brad, a driver in Riverside, California, who said Amazon had not significantly shortened his routes during the heatwave.

In late August, as temperatures soared, he decided to slow down – only to receive an automated message from Amazon saying he had under-performed on his “delivery completion rate”.

“It’s all about performance metrics – they want you to complete 20-25 stops an hour, and if you fall behind you’re in trouble,” said Brad, who also asked not to give his full name.

Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in an emailed statement that “driver safety is Amazon’s priority above every other metric, including the number of packages delivered or returned to station”.

“We communicate to our DSPs regularly that drivers should never make a delivery if they feel unsafe or unwell, and they’re empowered to return to station if at any time they feel their health or safety is in jeopardy.”

Metrics and algorithms

Drivers working for Amazon DSPs are monitored on a range of categories – from the speed of their deliveries to the number of returned or stolen packages and the safety of their driving – by Amazon tech tools installed in vans and on their cellphones.

And while the sweltering conditions have been taking a toll on delivery drivers for other companies as well, Amazon workers face particular pressures, said Michael Méndez, a professor at the University of California Irvine who researches climate change and labour issues.

“We’re seeing this surge in package deliveries and expansion of Amazon is colliding with the surge in climate-induced heatwaves, leading to unsafe labour conditions,” he said.

“They’re under so much pressure to make metrics – workers are even too afraid to take breaks,” he added.

Boschetti, the Amazon spokesperson, said company staff were “continuously monitoring the heat index to help DSPs and their drivers mitigate against heat stress”.

But one DSP manager in Sacramento, California, said in recent weeks he had seen first-hand how Amazon’s productivity monitoring system was punishing workers who were suffering from heat-related health issues.

In early September, one of the delivery drivers at his location had to stop work halfway through her shift because she had heat stroke. The following week, her performance rating was down nearly 20%, the manager said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Workers whose scores get too low risk not being scheduled for new shifts, losing their jobs, or missing out on promotions.

“The problem with algorithmic management is that it’s really too rigid to respond to extreme situations like a heatwave,” said Valerio De Stefano, a law professor at York University, who specialises in technology and labour.

In Sacramento, when the temperature hit the 115°F-threshold for work to stop, Amazon instructed drivers to park their vans and go somewhere cooler and then resume work once the temperature had dipped and stayed below the limit for an hour, according to messages seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If I had my way,” the DSP manager said, “no one would be working that day – but Amazon is in control.”

Another DSP manager in Ventura County California, who also requested anonymity, said nearly half of the station’s 30 drivers had vomited from heat-related stress in recent weeks – and that the route reductions and additional breaks offered by Amazon were insufficient.

“Amazon says drivers are free to take breaks, but everybody knows if you take too many breaks, you fall behind, and then Amazon is on you,” she said.

She said one particular metric that Amazon collects – an “engine-off compliance” score that forces drivers to turn off their engines at all stops – was making it impossible for drivers to cool down their vans with air conditioning.

“It’s just not safe,” she said.

Boschetti said drivers can remain in their vehicles with the air-conditioning switched on if they need to take additional breaks due to the heat. They must turn off their engines – and air conditioning – whenever they get out of their vehicles for safety reasons.

At his delivery station in Southern California, Matt, a driver who has worked for Amazon for more than two years and requested his full name be withheld, said many of his coworkers had been suffering heat exhaustion on the hottest days.

But he welcomed Amazon’s recent efforts to help them cope.

“The reduced routes can help a lot,” said Matt, adding that the cold water deliveries and additional breaks were also appreciated.

“I feel like Amazon is trying to help in their way,” he said.

“At the end of the day, this is a business ... it’s a metrics-based system and the package has to get delivered one way or another.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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