Many of Amazon’s contract delivery drivers were not paid tips from customers for grocery deliveries, some for as long as 10 days, leaving them out several hundred dollars.

It’s the third time this year an apparent glitch in Amazon’s system has deprived perhaps tens of thousands of workers of the majority of their income from delivering groceries for the commerce giant. Meanwhile, demand for delivery has surged amid the coronavirus pandemic, helping Amazon generate record sales and profits.

Several Amazon Flex drivers told The Seattle Times that tips on delivery routes in the Seattle area and beyond were dramatically reduced or disappeared entirely from their earnings statements, beginning about a week and a half ago.

Similar accounts from across the country have been posted to driver forums on Reddit and Facebook. In one closed Facebook group, which has some 21,000 Flex driver members, not a single person reported receiving their usual tips, said Ben, a Seattle-area driver who asked that his last name not be used while discussing the problem.

Amazon Flex drivers deliver grocery orders from Amazon Fresh, PrimeNow and Whole Foods. Their routes have a varying number of stops and include a guaranteed base payment from Amazon, but the tips that drivers receive from customers often significantly exceed the base payment amount.  

Ben and other drivers who have contacted the company about the missing or diminished tips said that Amazon has told them that it passes on 100% of customer tips to drivers, and that they have been paid the correct amounts.

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However, it seems unlikely that Amazon customers would drastically reduce or eliminate tips at the same time. Amazon’s customer-facing grocery-shopping apps have typically recommended a tip of $5 as customers complete their orders, drivers said.

“Unless something changed, customers have to explicitly go in and remove/lower the tip, and there’s no way that 6-7 of the customers on a … route would do that,” another Seattle-area driver said via email. The driver also requested anonymity for fear of running afoul of the company.

“It’s super dystopian,” Ben said. “At the very least, a canned response [from Amazon] saying they’re aware of the issue would be helpful.”

An Amazon spokesperson said Thursday afternoon, “Due to a technical issue, some Flex drivers experienced a delay in receiving their tips. This issue has been fixed and payments are currently in process.”

The spokesperson said missing tips would be paid out. Some drivers said that when this happened before, they never received the unpaid tips.

The handling of tips has been a persistent issue in the so-called gig economy, where workers are technically contractors and not direct employees of the companies.

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“There have been a lot of similar tipping ‘glitches’ on various apps, some of which turned out to actually be glitches, some of which turned out to be by design,” said Sage Wilson of the union-backed advocacy group Working Washington, which is pressing for pay standards, tip protections and greater transparency for gig-economy workers.

Drivers have asserted that Amazon Flex, along with other delivery platforms including Instacart and DoorDash, have used customer tips to cover promised base pay, according to reports last year by the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed News.

Wilson said inscrutable pay systems driven by frequently changed algorithms make it hard for gig-economy workers to track what’s going on — though the absence of tips for Amazon Flex drivers was readily apparent. A general lack of standards provides few enforcement options, he said.

Seattle has implemented some standards, including a $2.50-per-delivery premium-pay requirement during the coronavirus pandemic, backed by Working Washington. Instacart and the Washington Food Industry Association sued to block the premium-pay requirement, which applies to food and grocery deliveries.

Last week, the Seattle Office of Labor Standards (OLS) announced it had negotiated “informal resolutions” with Postmates and DoorDash under the Gig Worker Premium Pay Ordinance after conducting an inquiry into their compliance with the law. The OLS said on Twitter the companies had performed “voluntary internal audit[s]” and “paid a financial remedy” to workers. Postmates paid $250,515 to 2,975 workers, the OLS said, and DoorDash paid $111,435 to 2,998 workers.

A DoorDash spokesperson said the company is “committed to ensuring that Dashers” — its delivery contractors — “receive the compensation they deserve. We appreciate working with the Office of Labor Standards to identify and fully resolve the issue, and are glad the Dashers have been compensated.”

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A Postmates spokesperson disputed the city’s characterization, saying the company “did not negotiate a resolution with OLS. Rather, we made payments to workers that comply with the new requirements of the law, including a payment of interest on unpaid remuneration. Postmates provided OLS with a statement of our compliance under the law, which they have intentionally misconstrued for media purposes.”

Working Washington described the DoorDash and Postmates payments as “the first-ever labor-standards enforcement action by government that actually moves money from gig company bank accounts into gig workers’ pockets.”

Ben, the Amazon Flex driver, said he sometimes delivers six to eight routes a day to save money for graduate school. Tips represent the majority of his income and he’s out several hundred dollars in the last week and a half.

“Tips make up about 75%-plus of what a driver will make, and that’s why it’s pretty debilitating right now,” he said.

The former elementary school teacher often delivers in the same neighborhood where he taught and knows his customers well. He said four customers he talked to while delivering on Saturday said they thought their tips had been processed when they placed their orders.

Ben said tips also disappeared from Amazon Flex drivers’ earnings in March and July. Each time, the issue was resolved and tips began appearing again, he said, but not before drivers missed out on significant income.  

The Amazon spokesperson did not immediately offer an explanation for the repeated glitches involving Flex driver tips.