I’m sure I looked comical as I staggered down a downtown San Francisco street on a recent weekday, arms full of packages—as I dropped one and bent down to pick it up, another fell, and as I tried to rein that one in, another toppled.
Yet it wasn’t funny, not really. There I was, wearing a bright-yellow safety vest and working for Amazon Flex, a program in which the e-commerce giant pays regular people to deliver packages from their own vehicles for $18 to $25 an hour, before expenses. I was racing to make the deliveries before I got a ticket—there are few places for drivers without commercial vehicles to park in downtown San Francisco during the day—and also battling a growing rage as I lugged parcels to offices of tech companies that offered free food and impressive salaries to their employees, who seemed to spend their days ordering stuff online. Technology was allowing these people a good life, but it was just making me stressed and cranky.
“NOT. A. GOOD. DEAL,” I scrawled in my notebook, after having walked down nine flights of stairs, sick of waiting for a freight elevator that may or may not have been broken, and returned to my car for another armful of packages.
Welcome to the future of package delivery. As people shop more online, companies such as Amazon are turning to independent contractors—essentially anyone with a car—to drop parcels at homes and businesses. Flex is necessary because Amazon is growing so quickly—the company shipped 5 billion Prime items last year—that it can’t just rely on FedEx, UPS, and the Postal Service. Flex takes care of “last mile” deliveries, the most complicated part of getting goods from where they’re made to your doorstep. It also allows Amazon to meet increases in demand during the holiday season, Prime Day, and other busy times of the year, a spokesperson told me in an email.