After thousands of contract delivery drivers for Amazon reported diminished or missing customer tips since mid-September, the company acknowledged the problem and apologized, though the next steps for getting paid remained opaque.

“We know being paid on time is important, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience,” the company said in emails late Thursday and Friday to drivers, many of whom report being out several hundred dollars, the majority of their usual income from the company.

An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to questions Friday about whether customers were charged for tips they thought they had paid to drivers, describing delays due to a problem with the company’s payment processing systems. The problem was unrelated to two earlier incidents this year in which driver tips evaporated.

All drivers would receive all of their tips, the spokesperson said.

For many drivers, the situation underscored what they described as ongoing poor communication and treatment from Amazon, and further eroded their trust in the company.

But with the coronavirus pandemic causing widespread unemployment, the company has no shortage of people looking for work in one of the few areas of the economy that is thriving: e-commerce. The company’s volume of deliveries, revenue and profits have surged, with Amazon Flex drivers playing a key role, particularly to serve the growing demand for grocery delivery, a focus area for Amazon.

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“Amazon doesn’t care about drivers at all,” one long-time Seattle-area gig economy worker who drives for multiple platforms, including Flex, said in an email. Like other drivers, this person requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from the company, which is known to have monitored drivers on social media. “We are disposable, and with the economy as it is, they have an infinite supply of available bodies to sign up. … What they can’t seem to comprehend is how expensive it is to onboard new drivers and get them to a competent, functioning level.”   

Amazon began the Flex program five years ago as part of a broad strategy to control more of its delivery operation and accelerate delivery speeds. It has expanded to become a key component of the company’s last-mile delivery network, and is expected to be an integral part of a new program that will see more than 1,000 delivery hubs added in cities and suburbs.

Flex drivers use an app to vie for delivery routes with varying numbers of stops and base compensation set by the algorithms that govern so much work in the gig economy. They load goods into their own vehicles and take them to customer doorsteps, often developing a friendly rapport with regular Amazon shoppers. Flex drivers, along with other delivery contractors, are the human faces customers see in person at the end of the company’s highly automated retail machine, though they are not classified as Amazon employees and receive none of the company’s vaunted benefits.

“It is very disappointing that, in a time when our local communities have been ravaged by unsafe air quality due to fires, public health risks due to the global pandemic, and expanded delivery areas due to increased orders, Amazon has not met the mark of taking care of the drivers who put themselves on the line on a daily basis,” a second Seattle-area driver said in an email.

Amazon allows customers to provide tips for deliveries of groceries from its Whole Foods, PrimeNow and Fresh businesses, making these some of the most sought-after routes. Amazon pre-sets the tip amount, usually at $5, and drivers say many customers have chosen to tip more, particularly during the pandemic. Tips commonly amount to more than the base pay offered by Amazon for grocery delivery routes.

In correspondence provided by several drivers to The Seattle Times, Amazon said the issue causing the tips to be delayed has been fixed and payments were being processed. “You will receive a notification on the deposit date,” the company told the drivers.

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The spokesperson said all affected drivers have been contacted and don’t need to take any action. All delayed tips would be received with their next payment.

However, many drivers received additional correspondence from the company seeking additional details on the routes for which tips appeared to be missing “to assist us in investigating this issue.”

That information may not be available to them. While some drivers say they take screenshots of their routes and keep detailed records of deliveries and pay rate information, others do not.

“Amazon has never expressed to drivers that they need keep track of route information, and it is not currently possible to retrieve detailed delivery history in the app we use,” the second Seattle-area Flex driver wrote. “Once a route is completed, most of the information disappears into the ether, and you’re forced to trust that Amazon [will] make good on correct compensation.”

A driver in Hawaii said he had seen warnings from drivers that Amazon would “permanently deactivate our accounts” if they approached customers to verify tips. “There is an element of fear for drivers wishing to ensure they are being paid fairly,” the driver said.

Many drivers were appalled at how long it took Amazon to address the tips outage, particularly given how many people it was affecting. Flex drivers have active online communities where they share experiences and support each other, and these forums have been buzzing about the tips for more than a week.

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A report in VICE News earlier this month revealed a surveillance tool Amazon was using to spy on Flex drivers’ ostensibly private Facebook groups. The tool produces regular reports on drivers, including their full names, and flags topics they’re discussing on social media. One category included drivers “complaining about Amazon taking away their tips,” VICE reported.

Despite numerous complaints from drivers and the social media monitoring, Amazon did not acknowledge the problem to drivers until it was reported Thursday by The Seattle Times.

“They broke this, had no idea they broke this, and don’t have any system in place to know when they break this,” the longtime Seattle driver said.