By Julia Glum
December 17, 2018

Dessa Jarmon has a full-time job, three kids and an unfinished tattoo. So while she’d love to spend her free time hanging out at home, the 42-year-old heads out in her Jeep Cherokee on nights and weekends to deliver Amazon packages for extra cash. Her earnings go toward the family’s bills — and paying for the occasional session to get more bees, flowers and honeycombs inked onto her arm.

Jarmon is a driver for Amazon Flex, a service where independent contractors take delivery routes to supplement UPS, FedEx and the postal service. Similar to Uber or grocery delivery service Instacart, Amazon Flex allows people to set their own schedule and use their own vehicles. Drivers say the freedom is nice, and around the holidays, the rates are especially high: $124 for four hours’ work in Tennessee, $90 for three in Florida, $36 for two in Michigan.

On a recent Saturday in Washington state, Jarmon took her first shift, called a “block.” After passing a background check and watching a series of best practices videos, she grabbed a flashlight and a bag of dog treats and got to work.

“I decided, what the hell, let’s give it a try,” she tells MONEY. “After driving UberEATS that morning, where I was on for 2 ½ hours and made $25, I worked a four-hour block and made $76.”

Although cruising around and placing boxes on doorsteps may sound easy, getting jobs is not. The service has been growing steadily since Amazon first introduced it in 2015, and the competition for this side-hustle cash is hitting workers from all different types of angles. There are only so many packages; there are only so many routes. Jobs vary wildly in availability and difficulty, especially when porch pirates, winding country roads and overzealous guard dogs are involved. As word spreads about Flex, drivers are increasingly being forced to compete against each other — and the system — in order to make a steady income.

“We’re all doing the same thing,” says Christian Theurer, who runs flexdrivertips.com. “We’re all constantly searching and searching and refreshing our screens to get the next block.”

Swipe, Tap, Drive, Deliver

In order to join Flex, a person must be 21 or older, have a license and drive a vehicle at least as big as a sedan. Drivers also need an Android or an iPhone, because the whole system is based around an app.

When they’re ready to work, Flexers log on by opening that app and scrolling through a list of blocks available for the next 24 hours. Deliveries are clustered by area and include packages from Amazon.com, Prime Now and Amazon Fresh along with orders from Whole Foods, other stores and some restaurants. Each block covers a certain time period — say, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. — and comes with an offer price. (Drivers can also use an in-app calendar to indicate their availability and receive offers, but that method seems to be less popular.)

Flexers checking for available blocks need to be fast, because those are first-come, first-served. Another caveat: The payout is guaranteed, but the amount of physical labor is not.

“When I take a block of time at Amazon, I know I’m going to be earning that much money,” driver Cory Moll, 36, says. “The unknown of Amazon Flex is how much work is going to be a part of that block. A block could have only a few deliveries; it could have a bunch.”

Just before their scheduled start time, drivers head out to a nearby delivery center where they wait in line and pick up their packages. From there, the app guides them to the destinations. Drivers drop off each package, making a special effort to hide items from malicious porch pirates who steal boxes, and snap photos to confirm its delivery. When their back seat is empty, they’re done.

Many drivers are gig economy veterans, and several say they like Flex the best. Kaylania Chapman, a 40-year-old in Florida who has a YouTube channel called The Blessed Driver, likes that she doesn’t have to shop for customers like with grocery delivery service Shipt and can sometimes make more than food delivery service GrubHub.

Moll, who has also driven for Lyft and Uber, says Flex tends to give him more control over his profits. With the rideshare services, he can average about $25 an hour. With Flex, he can reach $30.

Moll listens to NPR in his Kia Rio when he delivers for Flex. He says the physical aspect of the gig can be a workout, especially at houses that have a lot of stairs, and he enjoys the occasional customer interaction.

Once, while dropping off a package containing ice cream, metal scoops and sprinkles, Moll asked if the customer was having a party. Delighted, the man told Moll no. He was simply planning to stay in, get high and eat a lot of ice cream alone.

Making the Most of — and From — Flex

The technical term for what Flex does is “last-mile delivery,” the final leg of the e-commerce process where an item travels from a facility to your home, says Beth Davis-Sramek, an associate professor of supply chain management at Auburn University. Last-mile delivery services are becoming increasingly necessary as e-commerce expands: Customers bought over 180 million items on Amazon between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday alone this year. UPS and the postal service have said they intend to deliver over 800 million packages each for the holidays.

“Especially during the Christmas season, the volume goes up to the point that it’s very hard for the big players,” Davis-Sramek says. “They just don’t have the capacity to make all of those deliveries.”

For Amazon, this is an opportunity to increase the amount of control it has over deliveries. For people seeking side hustles, it can be a chance to cash in — as long as they know what they’re getting into.

“There’s got to be some accountability on folks who choose to do this, because I think they need to have a realistic understanding of the risks involved,” Davis-Sramek says, comparing driving for Flex to having a small business. “You’ve gotta deal with competition; you are constrained by market forces.”

It’s unclear how many Flex drivers Amazon has, but the service is available in more than 50 cities.

Drivers are in a constant race against each other to not only get blocks but also beat the clock. Cleaven Smith, a 40-year-old driver in New Jersey, has developed several techniques: He checks the weather before accepting a block to not get caught in the rain. He uses Waze for directions because it’s more accurate than the Flex app. He never drinks anything within an hour of a block so he doesn’t have to stop to use the restroom.

Smith, a preschool teacher who works Flex to pay for his daughter’s dance classes, also organizes the packages in his Toyota Camry for optimal delivery speed.

“I learned how to get every little inch out of my car and still drive comfortably,” he says. “I’m trying to focus and get it done as fast as possible.”

To that end, Flex communities are sprouting up all over the internet. YouTube hosts thousands of videos with titles like “How Much Money Do You Make on Amazon Flex,” “Amazon Flex – Terminated!!!” and “Amazon Flex – Reactivated!!!” Websites like flexswag.us publish blog posts about why all apartment buildings should have lockers and how to use airplane mode to combat app glitches. There’s even an Amazon Flex Dogs Facebook page of photos of animals drivers have met on their routes.

Amazon Flex - Deliver with Amazon on Samsung s8 screen
dennizn—Alamy

‘Doorbells Don’t Tip’

But as with everything Amazon, there are definite downsides to Flex.

First, it’s not quite as lucrative as it sounds. Amazon claims that people can earn $18 to $25 an hour, with the average driver pulling in $20 an hour. But they’re responsible for their own expenses, like phone data and car maintenance. Those costs can snowball: Research from Sanford C. Bernstein, a subsidiary of asset management firm AllianceBernstein, found that most drivers end up earning between $5 and $11 an hour. A Bernstein report says that “Flex drivers are effectively monetizing the value of their transportation asset by getting paid cash today to make payments tomorrow.”

Drivers can’t always rely on tips to pad their payouts, either. Though drivers can choose to only deliver Whole Foods and restaurant orders, which require a face-to-face interaction and more likely a tip, most Flex blocks involve little customer interaction. The Bernstein report sums it up accordingly: “Doorbells don’t tip — and consumers are much less likely to tip a person delivering a box than a person delivering food or carrying in groceries.”

Amazon declined to give details about the size of its workforce and how it handles concerns about wages.

From the company’s perspective, having a fleet of independent contractors to handle last-mile deliveries is a sweet deal: It doesn’t have to pay for benefits (and it doesn’t have to give Flex drivers the $15 minimum wage Jeff Bezos promised warehouse workers earlier this year). But wage issues have sparked discussions about whether the contractors’ status should change. At least one lawsuit has taken up this cause, claiming that Amazon violated the Fair Labor Standard Act by not ensuring Flexers earn minimum wage or providing overtime.

In an earnings call, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky said the company intended to “continue to build our logistics capability” going “all the way to end delivery.” But it’s hard to say where Flex fits into that agenda.

In November, Amazon shuttered Flex without warning in Greensboro, North Carolina, leaving drivers bewildered and without work. Flex-themed Facebook groups are filled with panicked posts asking why no blocks are showing up and lamenting low prices, even as the holidays are in full swing.

Amazon also just launched a program for Delivery Service Partners, in which a person oversees a fleet of up to 40 vans and 100 employees. Virginia Flex driver Joel Manzer says some of his colleagues see DSPs as the enemy because they have stronger ties to Amazon, can deliver more packages and see more reliable business. (Adding to the drama: Several drivers who have made headlines, like the one in Memphis who got caught on camera carelessly throwing an envelope onto a lawn, appear to be DSPs.)

But Manzer would remind critics that Flex isn’t designed to be a 9-to-5. In fact, there are normally caps in place to keep drivers from working too many hours.

“Flexing is best used if it’s a part-time gig,” says Manzer, who also runs a digital marketing service for nonprofits. “If you need an extra couple hundred bucks a week, it’s great, but if you’re trying to do it full time, you’ll need to plan things out.”

The Battle for Blocks

The extreme conditions are inspiring some Flex drivers to fight back. They’re focusing their efforts on finding better ways to get blocks. Developers have written scripts and apps that automatically select shifts, while other drivers rely on clickers, or physical machines that sit on a phone and mimic finger motions.

Amazon threatens cheaters with deactivation, but Carlos Orjuela, a former Flex driver in California, says he doesn’t think he’s breaking the rules.

Orjuela cobbled together a clicker from cardboard, styluses and a computer fan when his wife had trouble grabbing blocks about a year ago. Since then, more than 14,000 people have viewed his video explaining how to assemble it. He says he “didn’t want to hurt Amazon in any way,” but “it was impossible to get shifts unless you had the system.”

He accepts PayPal donations from anyone who wants a PDF of the clicker directions. He says it’s fair game.

“If they are using software, it’s cheating, and I don’t like that. But this is something made by yourself in your house,” Orjuela adds. “This is a free option that is helping people.”

That theme of goodwill comes up a lot among Flex drivers because they recognize the unpredictable nature of the job. They may battle each other over shifts, but Manzer says they are united. Drivers do care about each other — and the customers.

They cheer whenever a person leaves a basket of sodas and snacks for drivers. They pride themselves on finding creative ways to place packages out of sight. They even purchase Amazon-branded gear so they don’t look suspicious stacking Christmas presents on the porch.

“When you see a 6’4, 300-pound guy coming toward your front door, you’re more scared than I am,” Manzer says. “My first thing [I say] is, ‘Just Amazon coming to make your deliveries!’”

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