Return to Sender: Amazon Seeks to Resume Service at the Expense of Workers & The Public

Credit: “Amazon” by Canonicalized is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Since Hurricane Ida struck Southeast Louisiana, an image of an armored, military truck guarding the Magazine Street Whole Foods has proliferated through social media feeds.

Those of the persuasion that looting is the least of our issues in the face of mass collapse of utility services and an endemic lack of resources have criticized the move as an elitist show of protecting private property at the expense of the public.

It’s unclear whether the armored truck was a municipal or private decision. Mayor LaToya Cantrell, in the immediate wake of the storm, launched a crystal clear social media campaign that looting won’t be tolerated.

Regardless of whether it falls on the Big Easy or Bezos, there are more questions to be asked of the latter right now. Big Easy Magazine spoke with multiple anonymous employees who work for New Orleans-area Amazon delivery service provider (DSP) about Amazon’s expectations post-Ida. What we hear is a distracted and out-of-touch corporate outlook that leaves workers, and the city, behind.

A DSP is an independent contractor who provides the vans that Amazon uses to deliver packages and coordinates their local routes. The drivers, dispatchers, and maintenance for Amazon vans are hired by the DSP, but can also be terminated by Amazon for infractions with their rules.

Initially, these DSP workers received a text from their management on August 30th, a day after Hurricane Ida struck, that Amazon intended to resume package deliveries on September 2nd, much to their surprise. A thread in the New Orleans subreddit expressed this concern and it attracted public outrage. Come September 1st that date was pushed back to September 5th. After a meeting between DSPs and Amazon that same day, it was pushed back again to September 7th with the statement that the date would most likely not be pushed back again.

These continual push backs without clear guidance have left employees, many of whom are displaced from New Orleans, confused and worried, with others simply hungry to get back to work to recover lost wages.

“I feel like they’re rushing it,” said one employee, “there’s a lot of people without places to sleep or can get gas.” Another employee gives a different story, “I want to get back to work.” What is certain is that from talking to multiple employees, one gets mixed messages.

There are a few major issues that are apparent from talking with these employees, however. The first being that the DSP’s vans currently don’t have fuel and it’s unclear how they’re going to be refueled by September 7th. There is a tremendous gas shortage in South Louisiana and lines for gas reportedly take multiple hours to get through. Even in neighboring states, there are tremendous lines for gas. Many have waited upwards of four and as much as eight hours in lines just to be told gas has run out or to be sent home by NOPD for the city curfew.

This raises a concern as it pertains to scarcity. Essential services and aid organizations need gas to distribute relief. Those still in affected areas without power desperately need gas to run generators, especially those who have to take care of elderly people and children. There are also many who wish to get out of the city to beat the heatwave, but cannot because they don’t have gas to leave.

Speaking with an anonymous non-Amazon-affiliated employee still in New Orleans providing plumbing, HVAC, and electrical services, they expressed that there is a hierarchy of gas necessities. They argue that there are many who could leave New Orleans and don’t have an essential reason to stay, but are staying nonetheless with the relative comfort of generators. To them, this is an unnecessary use of gas that puts those who absolutely need it in danger. “Literally everyone is taking a hit for the people that just want to be comfortable.”

It’s unclear when gas will be widely available again and unless they have a generator or alternative source of power, gas stations can’t pump gas. This further limits the amount of sites where one can receive gas. Entergy’s recently announced timeline for power restoration places the greater New Orleans area as not having power until at least September 8th, placing the planned Amazon start date in a proverbial dark zone.

This sentiment of necessity is echoed by employees. “Gas has better places to go, generators and gas to get out of town,” said one employee. Other employees currently in North and Central Louisiana voiced concern about getting back for work citing a personal difficulty in getting gas even outside the affected area of Hurricane Ida. One said that gas was so hard to acquire where they’ve evacuated that commuting to New Orleans to work their usual 10-hour work day, “would be literally impossible.” Insofar as power is out in the New Orleans area, the dispatching station for Amazon vans will also have to run on generators. No matter how you look at it, Amazon resuming operations would constitute a major pressure on already scarce gas supplies and displaced employees.

This begs the question: are these Amazon package deliveries essential right now? Do they warrant the resource sacrifice they present? There are arguments both ways, but the consensus seems to be that they are not.

One could argue that the medication that Amazon delivers could be essential to some, but this sentiment was not expressed by any employees. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what packages would warrant such a large repositioning of scarce resources to facilitate Amazon. According the United States Postal Service, “Retail and delivery operations remain suspended in 700, 701, 703 and 704 3-digit ZIP Code areas until further notice. Due to storm damage and safety concerns, facilities are currently being evaluated.” If the mail service is still not operating in New Orleans, it’s unclear why Amazon should get a fast pass.

Another major concern among employees is ironic in light of the Whole Foods armored truck: looting. “Packages on doors are just another thing to loot,” said one employee. Another pointed out that, “people won’t be home for their packages.” Regardless of one’s political orientation to post-disaster looting, this problematizes the idea that package delivery is necessary, or even desirable to many Amazon customers.

Luckily, when asked about fear of termination if they were to not return on Tuesday, some employees seemed worried, but had faith in their DSP. In reference to DSP management, one employee hungry to return to work said, “These are southern people, they get it.” Another described them as, “understanding.” The issue is the disconnect between DSPs and Amazon.

The fact of the matter is that drivers get paid based on route hours and as long as they’re not working they’re not getting paid. Employees told me that the management at their DSPs sent them a link to the Amazon Relief Fund to apply for relief for lost wages. The website states that, “The Amazon Relief Fund was created with a $25M USD donation from Amazon to help individuals who are facing financial hardship immediately after a natural disaster or an unforeseen personal hardship.” However, employees quickly found that the fund did not list Hurricane Ida as an option and that funds were not available for non-COVID-related hardships.

Even though some employees want to return to work and others have said they don’t want to restrict people’s ability to make money, it’s hard to take that desire seriously when they don’t have a clear financial alternative. The employees I spoke with suggested that Amazon should do as they say and support those affected by natural disasters. Amazon reported a net income of $21.33 billion in 2020.

Even though DSP management appears to be the messenger that is not to be shot, an employee pointed out that there is an unspoken incentive for DSPs to get workers on the road as soon as possible. According to this employee, multiple DSPs are based at a given station and are ranked by Amazon in terms of performance. These rankings determine the quality of routes they are given by Amazon. The employee stated that even though they are given an hour of break time a day, they are implicitly encouraged to not take breaks to get higher performance. It’s hard to imagine that this doesn’t still coerceDSP actions now.

“Amazon does not care about me as an employee,” said one. If you think you’d be getting any package you order now promptly, that may not be true. This employee pointed out that despite Amazon assuring them earlier this summer of a reduced package count because of extreme heatwaves, they are now a week and a half behind on packages and are looking at upwards of three weeks of extra work. Another cited with condemnation that Amazon drivers in New York City were sent out the day after record flooding from Hurricane Ida, and that they did not want the same for their coworkers.

There is a definite concern for worker safety in the post-storm conditions. Multiple employees cited a history of being robbed in areas of New Orleans East, which they feel would only be heightened in present conditions. Additionally, drivers told me that they would not feel safe driving without streetlights and that they often have to drive down very deconstructed roads that may be unsafe to drive down. “Amazon is all about safety, but they want us to go back to work when there’s not enough resources down there.”

In response to subpar relief and work expectations from Amazon in the wake of the storm, workers have responded in a variety of ways. Left to fend for themselves, they have organized a relief fund amongst themselves through Venmo @NOLALOGISTICSRELIEF and are accepting donations. Some employees have vocalized that Amazon customers should cancel any packages they had scheduled to signal the lack of necessity to the corporation.

They also have some suggestions for Amazon. One being that if they were to go back to work now the hundreds of Amazon vans owned by DSPs that service New Orleans and surrounding areas would be more justifiably utilized to distribute essentials and assist mutual aid efforts. “They could make the choice to load them up with MREs, toilet paper, and water,” one said, suggesting that PR-wise, this would be in Amazon’s best interest, as well. “Amazon should just delay packages” said another, with yet another employee adding that deliveries should not resume until the gas shortage is resolved.

We yearn for a return to normalcy and many want to return to work, but there are serious questions about whether Amazon is doing right by its DSP employees. Workers are expressing very valid concerns about a corporate disconnect between Amazon and its DSPs. This isn’t just a concern for Amazon DSP workers, though – it’s a concern for all the Louisiana residents, essential services, and aid organizations that desperately need gas, but are struggling to acquire it.

Amazon has a few questions to answer. They aren’t giving financial support to workers even though their website says that relief funds apply to hardships from natural disasters, which places them in a fundamentally dishonest situation that is tantamount to financial hostage taking. Furthermore, if Amazon decides to refuel these fleets of vans with resources that essential services and Louisiana residents desperately need, the onus will be on Amazon to explain why a package delivered to an empty home is worth depriving someone of necessary access to power or a ride out of town.

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