Newly Unionized Amazon Delivery Drivers Say the Company Is Hiding Behind Subcontractors

Like many corporations, Amazon has used subcontractors to avoid responsibility for working conditions and pay. A group of Palmdale, California, subcontracted workers wants to force Amazon to change that.

An Amazon delivery driver carries boxes in Hawthorne, California. (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Demetria Forte had been working as an Amazon driver for a few months when she had a miscarriage while on the clock.

Technically, she was employed by Battle-Tested Strategies (BTS), one of Amazon’s roughly three thousand delivery service partners (DSPs). But in every meaningful sense of the term, she was an Amazon worker. She and her coworkers wear Amazon-branded uniforms, drive Amazon-branded vehicles, and the company determines their routes, monitoring them throughout their shifts.

On the day of her miscarriage, Forte was working a regular shift, which takes her through the high desert climate around Palmdale, California, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, where BTS is located. Temperatures can reach 110 degrees, and the Palmdale drivers are quick to note that Amazon’s decision to hold Prime Day at the height of summer means that they are pushed to their limits during the hottest time of the year. As Forte and several of her coworkers told me, many of the delivery vans did not have functioning air-conditioning (AC).

“You were lucky if you were able to get a van with AC, or a van with windows that actually rolled down if you didn’t have AC,” said Forte. “And when you go to the back of the van to grab one of your packages, it’s twice as hot. I’m pretty sure that I could fry an egg back there.”

Forte had not been aware that she was pregnant. When she noticed that she was bleeding, she stopped at a store to purchase pads. But soon, she was bleeding through a pad in ten minutes’ time, and it was clear to her that something was dangerously wrong. Worried for her health and in extreme discomfort, she called a BTS dispatcher to inform them of the emergency.

“When I contacted one of the dispatchers, she said to me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were having a miscarriage?’ recounted Forte. “I said, ‘I didn’t know, I was already out on my route. It’s not something that is planned.’ She said, ‘Well, we can’t send you a rescue because we don’t have any rescues at the moment.’ So she was letting me know that I should try to finish my route.”

While Forte feels that the BTS dispatcher could have been more professional and empathetic during the call, she also says that there is a likely reason she responded that way: dispatchers are under immense pressure from Amazon to ensure drivers deliver the expected number of packages.

“I think that her job was on the line,” says Forte. “She has to watch everybody’s schedule to make sure everyone is on top of their routes and their deliveries.”

So as she miscarried, Forte continued delivering Amazon packages.

“For a woman to experience that, with so much pain and discomfort, how do you expect me to finish my route delivering packages in that state?” said Forte. “But I make sure my job is done. I don’t want to be a failure. I don’t want to be known as that. So I tried to continue my route.”

But the pain was overwhelming, and Forte couldn’t keep up with the pace required of Amazon drivers. Amazon’s monitoring system, which would call BTS when a driver strayed from a route even for a matter as simple as using a bathroom, noticed that she was moving slowly. Two hours later, a replacement driver arrived.

“By the time the guy came, there was blood all over my legs,” said Forte. “It was a really bad picture. He asked, ‘Are you alright?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’”

Forte’s story graphically illustrates the conditions that led her and eighty-three of her coworkers to unionize in April, when they voted to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 396. BTS voluntarily recognized the union.

BTS owner Johnathon Ervin, like many DSPs, has his own problems with Amazon. As he told Wired, “The amount of control [Amazon has] is incredible. You’re really just managing a function.” Such a dynamic explains why, chafing under Amazon’s dictates, he recognized the union. Said Ervin: “To have their voices heard was the only option for me. We’ve been fighting together [against Amazon] for quite a while.”

The two sides quickly negotiated a first contract, which includes raising workers’ wages from $19.75 an hour to $30 an hour, a change that in turn requires Amazon to provide BTS with additional money. The workers unanimously ratified the contract, becoming the first Amazon drivers ever to do so.

Amazon has responded by stating that the Palmdale drivers are not its employees. Further, citing what it described as “poor performance” by the DSP, the company said that it had already made the decision not to renew BTS’s contract when it expires this year, adding that it had notified BTS of the nonrenewal before the union went public.

However, Ervin says that after his drivers organized a petition to Amazon about vehicles’ broken air-conditioning in the summer of 2022, Amazon sent a BTS representative to an anti-union training, at which the trainer told the representative that Amazon would cancel its contract with BTS were the drivers to unionize. It’s not the first time Amazon has been accused of such retaliation: delivery drivers in Michigan who unionized with the Teamsters in 2017 said that the company similarly retaliated against them.

In response to the nonrenewal of the contract, Teamsters filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board. In June, the Palmdale drivers launched a ULP strike, demanding Amazon honor the contract and recognize them as employees, and in doing so, admit that it is a joint employer with BTS. What began as a picket line on their home turf in California has extended to Amazon warehouses and delivery stations across the country, with the drivers and their allies, from other Teamsters to nonunion Amazon warehouse workers, joining the picket lines.

While Forte’s story is an extreme example of the inability of Amazon’s business model to account for workers’ humanity, conversations with five other Palmdale drivers suggest that her experience is a near-inevitable consequence of their working conditions.

“The air-conditioning doesn’t work at all,” said Michael Leib, another Palmdale driver. “The only time that something was blowing, it was the heat. That’s obviously no help at all when it’s 110 outside. We’re already breaking world records for heat this year, so it’s only getting worse.”

I was speaking with Leib and a handful of his coworkers near downtown Los Angeles at a Teamsters rally held outside a United Parcel Service (UPS) hub on July 19. The gathering was headlined by IBT president Sean O’Brien, part of the union’s campaign to prepare to strike UPS should negotiations over the union’s contract fail to be tied up by its July 31 expiration date. Shortly after the rally, UPS told the union that it was willing to return to the negotiating table, and within the week, the Teamsters announced that they had reached a tentative agreement on the country’s largest private sector contract.

The Palmdale workers had driven to Los Angeles for the rally, leaving by 6 a.m. to reach the UPS hub in time to connect with their fellow Teamsters, as well as other members of the Southern California labor movement — writers, actors, hotel workers — many of whom have joined the Palmdale drivers’ picket lines.

When I asked the drivers how Amazon responds when they raise problems like the faulty air-conditioning inside delivery vehicles, they said the best they receive is lip service.

“We would bring the problem to them, and they would just tell us to do the best we can,” said Cecilia Porter, another Palmdale driver who worked for the company for two and a half years. Porter said that even in some newer vehicles, not only did the air-conditioning not work, but there were other issues too.

“The majority of the time, my sliding door that I used to get the big packages in and out wouldn’t open from the inside” she explained. “I had to hop out of the car, go around, and open it, which takes more time and puts us behind. Sometimes I was skipping my breaks because they would message me to ask why I was taking so long.”

In response to similar claims, Amazon spokesperson Eileen Hards told Wired that DSPs are responsible for maintaining air-conditioning, adding that the company “immediately grounds vehicles without working air conditioners, maintains a round-the-clock safety helpline, and provides heat mitigation training and supplies such as electrolyte powder, coolers, insulated tumblers, and cooling bandanas.”

Reached for comment, BTS’s Ervin, who joined the Air Force out of high school, serving ten years on active duty before transitioning to the Reserve, said that he was on duty at Scott Air Force Base and could not respond in time for publication.

Then, in addition to everything else, there are the dogs. Porter said she was routinely chased by (and in one case, bitten by) customers’ dogs. She said that when she told Amazon about the issue, the company failed to resolve it. She is far from the only driver with such stories; in Missouri last year, an Amazon driver died after being attacked by a customer’s dogs.

“We’re trained by Amazon to walk onto the customer’s property and take the package to the front door,” said Jessie Moreno, another Palmdale driver. “They know a lot of these customers have aggressive dogs, but to them, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been chased off multiple properties. I’ve been bitten in the ankle by a small dog.”

Such poor working conditions add up to a union campaign: when workers feel that raising problems with their employer is the equivalent of talking to a brick wall, they will search for a means of forcing the employer to listen to them. Unions are that means. Amazon will surely continue trying to avoid culpability via its subcontracting model, but drivers like the ones in Palmdale will surely continue turning to organizing to resolve such problems.

For the Palmdale drivers, laboring under an employer so prone to treating its workforce as disposable, such organizing feels like a reclamation of their humanity. The workers are now in control, making their own decisions as to how they will fight back.

“This is our fight,” said Moreno. “We have a committee where we can all make decisions together and move on from there. Whatever we come up with as a group, any good decision that we can get flowing, we jump on that. We have our union representatives who we throw those ideas to, but we’re running things now.”

“It’s empowering,” said Leib. “I just love it: every time I come out to a picket line, I see the amount of supporters we have. It’s because we all want the same thing: a better wage. When multibillion-dollar companies are not willing to give back, it’s simply not fair. Everyone agrees that the bigger man needs to chip in a lot more.”

As for the Palmdale workers’ plans going forward, they said that they plan to continue expanding their picket lines, increasing pressure on Amazon, and, importantly, building ties with the company’s warehouse workers. On Prime Day last month, Forte and two other Palmdale drivers picketed outside of DDT6, an Amazon delivery station in Pontiac, Michigan. They were joined by some sixty of the facility’s workers, who had invited them to extend their picket line to the Michigan warehouse.

Speaking with Labor Notes, the Pontiac workers said that they walked off the job in response to retaliation from Amazon in the form of a refusal to accommodate a worker when she was injured on the job. The DDT6 employees have been organizing for more than a year, delivering a petition in October of 2022 demanding Amazon slow the dangerous pace of work and put an end to the reduction of workers’ time-off bank when they are minutes late for a shift. The DDT6 turnout exceeded the Palmdale drivers’ expectations.

“We have a connection, because even though I don’t do the same job as them, neither of us are being treated fairly,” said Forte. “I just want them to know that I have their backs and they’re not in it alone.”

As for Amazon’s denial that it can be held responsible for drivers’ working conditions, the Palmdale drivers hope that their organizing will help put an end to that legal strategy.

“A lot of people see us in Amazon clothing and say, ‘Oh, you work for Amazon,’” said Moreno. “But Amazon says, ‘No, they’re not our employees, they’re subcontracted.’ We want everyone to understand that is what Amazon hides behind. That’s what they use to bully us and push us around. We want everybody to realize that’s the main fight right now. People see us and say that we’re Amazon employees, and that’s because we are.”

“I’m hoping that we can get the word out across the nation,” said Forte. “Our customers don’t know what goes on with us besides delivering their packages to the house, because they don’t see it. I want them to know that what we go through on a daily basis is not fair. It feels good to let our voices be heard.”