Amazon wasted no time in squashing delivery drivers' hack to get more work

Drivers were hanging phones in trees near delivery facilities in order to get first dibs.

Noam Galai/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Amazon has reportedly caught up to a scheme devised by some drivers to secure deliveries before others by hanging smartphones in trees outside of warehouses and stores. Bloomberg first reported on the phenomenon and now says drivers who previously used the hack and were frequently chosen for orders aren't getting the same amount of work, while people further away are getting more offers.

The algorithm used by the company to send out requests for Amazon Flex workers apparently factored-in proximity, so some drivers discovered they could hide a smartphone right outside a store to nab delivery requests before even people waiting right beside them in the parking lot. The phones in the trees were synced to another phone they kept with them so they could see offers come in from a distance. Flex is the company's service for hiring gig workers to pick from deliveries and ferry them to customers, supplementing private mail services.

Desperation — Amazon at the time of the first report told Bloomberg that it was investigating the issue but claimed that waiting outside a store wasn't an effective way to get more jobs. Either way, it doesn't look good for the company that drivers are going to such lengths to get work that only pays about $15 per delivery before accounting for expenses like gas.

Blurring lines — Although these delivery drivers work as contractors who can accept or reject jobs whenever they'd like, many rely on the service for much of their income and effectively treat it as a primary job — especially now during the pandemic and economic recession where unemployment is above 9 percent. Bloomberg reported that some drivers would place multiple phones in a tree and then hand out delivery requests to other drivers for a cut of the proceeds, therefore acting like a dispatcher.

If drivers are standing by waiting for delivery requests as soon as they're available, then that means they're no different than employees except they aren't getting paid for idle time or other costs (which is, of course, exactly how Amazon likes it). Critics say that gig economy companies know full well that many of their workers treat it like a full-time job but turn a blind eye so they don't have to pay benefits.

Other gig economy jobs like driving for Uber have dried up since so few people are commuting or going out at night. Amazon has been staffing up inside its warehouses but stopped offering increased pandemic pay several months ago, and workers have said they aren't being sufficiently protected against coronavirus.