Six weeks into his job delivering Amazon orders in his own pickup truck, Fraser Muir knows what customers are wondering.
“Who is this stranger driving through the neighborhood delivering packages?” said Muir, of Olathe.
From a lanyard flaps an orange tag indicating Muir is an “Amazon Flex Independent Contractor.” But there’s no identifying photo. And if you’re looking outside as his black Ram 1500 pulls to the curb, you may need to squint to see a few magnets he designed for the truck doors, saying he drives for Amazon.
“The postal service has uniforms. Me, I wear my own polo shirt and shorts,” said Muir, 40.
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Amazon Flex drivers by the dozens have been motoring up in recent weeks to a warehouse on the outskirts of Shawnee. Muir, an information technology specialist on weekdays, does this Flex gig on evenings and weekends. As many as 80 boxes may wait for him at the warehouse for a route usually designed to fill four-hour shifts.
Muir’s pay ranges from $18 to $25 an hour, with the higher wage expected during the holiday crush.
Flex drivers must be 21 or older and need only a standard driver’s license, auto insurance, a newer smartphone, and a vehicle no smaller than a four-door sedan. No vehicle inspection is required.
As representatives of the exploding “gig economy,” in which one study predicts 40 percent of U.S. workers will be independent contractors by 2020, Amazon Flex operators pick their hours, can choose to decline available routes and sometimes ride with family members or pets.
“Be your own boss,” Amazon entices, “and have more time to pursue your own goals and dreams.”
For customers, the Flex arrangement offers same-day delivery, including Sundays, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. And Amazon Prime subscribers, who pay $99 a year, don’t pay extra for speedy shipping of goods costing at least $35.
So almost everyone’s happy. Especially Amazon, which is making use of thousands of freelance drivers nationwide. The company saves resources otherwise spent on employee benefits, office space and training.
“Amazon is trying to break the stranglehold that UPS and Federal Express have had on them from the start,” said Chris Kuehl, co-founder of Armada Corporate Intelligence, a Kansas City-based adviser to business executives.
“It’s Amazon saying, ‘Hey, we can do this (home delivery) ourselves,’” he said.
Not so happy are some Kansas City-area police departments.
Without company logos identifying the vehicles or their drivers, Flex deliverers in their regular street clothes are “bound to draw attention from people saying there’s a suspicious person circling the neighborhood,” said John Lacy, public information officer for the Overland Park police.
“Next thing you know,” he said, “we’re sending out a squad.”
And calls to police may only increase as Amazon’s delivery options expand.
This week, the retailer announced a new service, Amazon Key, that will allow for deliveries inside the homes of Prime customers who request it. A set-up kit includes a programmable “smart lock” and an Amazon security camera that will allow customers to view in-home deliveries on their phones.
Amazon’s website depicts those “thoroughly vetted drivers” wearing Amazon uniforms and ballcaps — not Flex drivers but people the company employs through professional shipping contractors.
Kansas City, Kan., is among 37 communities eligible for Amazon Key, the website says.
“They are their own bosses”
Like Uber or Lyft drivers — who haul people rather than freight — the company’s Flex contractors can’t work without their smartphones.
The app issued by Amazon scans packages and tells drivers where to go. It monitors their whereabouts and logs their performance. Deliveries are complete when drivers use their phones to snap a photo of a box at the doorstep.
On Facebook, more than 150 area residents have joined the “Amazon Flex Drivers Shawnee” page.
They share questions such as, “How often do you return packages to the warehouse?” They offer tips about the best ways to pack their cars and how to shorten delivery times.
Driver Eric Deiter, administrator of the Facebook page, said: “If you can do a 4-hour block in 3 hours, boom, you’re making money quicker.” Because either way, you earn $72.
Their Facebook posts show how little the Seattle-based company instructs freelancers through the daily demands of package delivery.
“There’s not a lot of guidance,” except for a series of online videos that independent drivers must watch before their first day, said Deiter, of Grain Valley. He applied in July, when Amazon first posted local openings.
According to its website, the company does driving record and criminal background checks on applicants.
But people logging on now wouldn’t know Flex was available in the area because the site does not list Kansas City among communities being served. Recent applications have triggered a response of “delivery opportunities aren’t available in your area.”
Hiring comes in spurts, explained Deiter: “Because so many drivers are interested right now, it’s very difficult to get the work.”
True to its aim of treating Flex deliverers as independent contractors rather than employees, Amazon made no effort to provide drivers for this story. The Star also was denied access inside the distribution center at Bonner Springs Industrial Park East.
Still, Amazon spokesman Ernesto Apreza said the company won’t stop those drivers who put stickers on their vehicles to make it clear they’re delivering Amazon packages.
“It’s entirely up to them,” Apreza said. “At at the end of the day, they are their own bosses.”
Provided the company keeps offering them routes — which is never guaranteed, said Satish Jindel, president of shipping logistics advisor SJ Consulting Group, Inc.
Jindel has been following Amazon Flex since it was launched in several large cities two years ago.
“Amazon has raised the level of customer satisfaction to what I’d call an obsession,” Jindel said.
“What you might think is a sweet deal working as an independent driver can go rotten awfully fast,” he said. “They don’t hesitate to yank you,” should deliveries repeatedly arrive late or packages never reach their destinations.
“You’ll be lucky to get 24 hours notice.”
Audra Pankrez arrives in her Kia Soul at the distribution site with her 10-year-old son, Shane, who helps sort packages in the back seat.
Twenty-two packages awaited them this afternoon. Pankrez does not know her delivery destinations until warehouse workers tell her.
Her stops this day are clustered in Clay County neighborhoods about 45 minutes from the distribution point.
An Amazon Flex driver in Texas before her family moved to Overland Park in June, Pankrez has her own system for sorting: Early deliveries close to the front seats and later ones near the back cargo door.
“I’ll load my car all the way to the roof, side to side,” said Pankrez. “I try to work 30 hours a week. It’s been great for my family.”
Her son is on the right side of a split back seat, crowded by boxes that he hands to mom as they approach a house. They enjoy hunting for addresses together. With Shane’s help, they can wrap up a 4-hour block in half the time.
Pankrez wears a reflector vest to appear official, along with her generic Amazon Flex tag. She chooses not to mark her car as a delivery vehicle, fearing it might draw thieves.
Customers seldom inquire. They’re just happy to see those boxes with Amazon’s logo.
“So soon? I’m surprised,” said Northland resident Julie Bannister. “What a convenience not having to drive to drug stores to hunt this down.”
She ordered her medicine delivery through Amazon Prime around midnight that morning. And the sun had yet to set.