Fired by Bot at Amazon: ‘It’s You Against the Machine’
Contract drivers say algorithms terminate them by email—even when they have done nothing wrong.
Stephen Normandin spent almost four years racing around Phoenix delivering packages as a contract driver for Amazon.com Inc. Then one day, he received an automated email. The algorithms tracking him had decided he wasn’t doing his job properly.
The 63-year-old Army veteran was stunned. He’d been fired by a machine.
Normandin says Amazon punished him for things beyond his control that prevented him from completing his deliveries, such as locked apartment complexes. Amazon assigned him some pre-dawn deliveries at apartment complexes when their gates were still locked, a common complaint among Flex drivers. The algorithm instructs drivers in such instances to deliver packages to the main office, but that wasn’t open either. Normandin called the customer as instructed—a long shot because most people don’t answer calls from unfamiliar numbers, especially early morning. He called driver support, which couldn’t get through to the customer either. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking, and the algorithm was taking note.
When Ryan Cope was deactivated in 2019, he didn’t bother arguing or consider paying for arbitration. By then, Cope had already decided there was no way he could meet the algorithms’ demands. Driving miles along winding dirt roads outside Denver in the snow, he often shook his head in disbelief that Amazon expected the customer to get the package within two hours.
When drivers do challenge poor ratings, they can’t tell if they’re communicating with real people. Responses often include just a first name or no name at all, and the replies typically apply to a variety of situations rather than a specific problem. Even if a name is attached, a machine most likely generated the first few email responses, according to people familiar with the matter.
When human managers get involved, they typically conduct a hasty review—if they do one at all—because they must meet their own performance standards. A former employee at a driver support call center said dozens of part-time seasonal workers with little training were assigned to oversee issues for millions of drivers.