Seattle officials are reviewing whether Amazon Flex, the app-based program that contracts with workers to get packages to customers' doors, should be subject to the city's labor laws.
The Seattle Office of Labor Standards (OLS) said to The Stranger an "investigation" into Amazon Flex is "currently ongoing." However, because the case is still open, a spokesperson would not answer further questions. (The Stranger has a pending records request for more information.)
A flier posted about three weeks ago in a Seattle Amazon facility said OLS is “reviewing whether certain labor standards laws apply to the Amazon Flex program.” The flier listed local labor laws including the minimum wage, wage theft protections, sick and safe time, and restrictions on how employers can use conviction and arrest records. The flier also said those laws “do not apply to independent contractors.” It encouraged Amazon Flex workers to contact OLS if they “have information related to driving for Amazon Flex.”
As Amazon has grown, so has its "fulfillment" network, where workers sort, ship, and deliver packages. Amazon Flex is the app-based service in which drivers sign up to deliver Amazon packages. Flex drivers sign up for shifts, then use their own vehicles to pick up and deliver packages. They also deliver groceries for Amazon Fresh or orders from Amazon Restaurants. Amazon operates warehouses and fulfillment facilities in Sumner, Kent, DuPont, and Seattle. When a GeekWire writer tried Amazon Flex, he picked up packages at facilities in Georgetown and North Seattle. A spokesperson for Amazon has not yet responded to questions about the company’s Amazon Flex operations in Seattle or OLS’s investigation.
Like many workers in the so-called "gig economy," drivers for Amazon Flex are treated as independent contractors. Unlike employees, independent contractors are not entitled to the minimum wage or other labor protections. Companies like Amazon classify certain workers as independent contractors with language like "be your own boss, set your own schedule." Worker advocates say the company has enough control over workers’ day-to-day conditions that they should be classified as employees instead.
In Seattle, workers in the new app-based economy have fought for more rights in courtrooms and council chambers. Seattle granted independent contractors new labor rights when the city council voted to allow Uber drivers to unionize, but drivers have yet to form a union. In 2016, Amazon Flex drivers in Seattle and elsewhere sued the company saying they should be considered employees. The case is now on hold pending a Supreme Court decision on a related arbitration issue. Nationally, multiple other lawsuits argue independent contractors for tech companies are actually employees.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based attorney representing Amazon Flex drivers, says factors like workers’ ongoing relationship with the company and the company’s control over their work should factor into decisions about whether they are employees or contractors. Liss-Riordan has also worked on multiple class action cases against tech companies like Uber. Unlike Uber drivers who can sign on and off the app at any time, Amazon Flex drivers sign up for shifts, typically four hours long, and the company assigns them packages to deliver.
“The control Amazon has over these drivers in so many ways looks like a traditional employment relationship,” Liss-Riordan says. “They are trying to massively reduce their labor costs by classifying a whole segment of their workforce as independent contractors so they don’t have to worry about things like workers’ compensation, unemployment, paying overtime, or paying the minimum wage.”
Liss-Riordan says she is aware of OLS’s investigation. She wouldn’t say more about what it entails, but called it “gratifying to see that local branches of government are stepping up to the task.”