I’m a 55-year-old Amazon driver in Oregon who walks up to 10 miles a day. Here’s how the company’s incentivising us this holiday season.

Jim Smith. Courtesy of Jim Smith
  • Jim Smith is a 55-year-old Amazon delivery driver based in Northern Oregon.
  • Smith is a retired corporate manager, and has spent the last four years as a professional photographer for magazines and websites.
  • With most in-person events cancelled for the foreseeable future thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Smith picked up a job as an Amazon delivery driver in March for extra income.
  • During the holiday season, Smith has picked up an extra 10-hour day to make money, but says he’s worried about the physical toll the long hours may have on his body.
  • This is his story, as told to freelance writer Meira Gebel.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I worked the Tuesday after Cyber Monday and expected for my van to be filled to the roof with packages, but it wasn’t. I’ve seen on social media forums and Facebook groups that this is the worst peak season they have ever seen, but we just haven’t seen it yet here in Portland.

The worst of peak holiday season has yet to hit our DSP, but Amazon has been preparing for increased holiday traffic for months.

I am one of four other drivers from my distribution centre in the new UPS-style step trucks, opposed to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans. Amazon has also been recruiting new distribution centres, asking existing DSP partners to add more routes, and has hired more drivers. Amazon has asked the manager of our DSP to increase the number of routes we run on a daily basis by about 15% — which is a big number to have the coverage for both vehicles and drivers every day.

Amazon is also pushing for a lot more delivery drivers to become certified through the Department of Transportation (DOT) so more people can drive the bigger delivery vehicles in preparation for the holiday season, so packages and routes are evenly spread out.

Amazon gives a pool of money to all of the DSPs leading up to the holidays to help them hire, retain, motivate their employees to work through peak season.

Each DSP uses that money in different ways to incentive their drivers through bonus structures and additional pay if we pick up a fifth or sixth day of work.

At my DSP, we are all hired for four days of work, so when we decide to pick up a fifth day of work we get an additional $US25, same goes for the sixth day. We already work 10 hours a day, so if a driver decides to pick up those additional two days through peak season, they could potentially be making $US40 to $US42 an hour.

I recently turned 55, so before I decided to pick up a fifth day, I had to figure out what my body could handle. I recently had a route that had 564 packages. My van was completely stuffed.

Sure, I can make a whole bunch of money in December and go into the New Year with a flush, nice-looking bank account, but how much can I do? So as of now, I’ve committed to a fifth day, but not a sixth. I don’t physically feel like I can do sixth with that kind of toll that it takes on your body.

Before I became a delivery driver for Amazon, I spent 25 years in middle corporate management running retail chains.

I retired from that, and returned to my life-long passion shooting commercial photography for magazines, newspapers, and had clients like GoDaddy and Expedia.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit — and wedding photography, portrait photography is all over. About 30% of my income every year was from flying around the country shooting sports.

I was hired on as a delivery driver for Amazon at the end of March. About 90% of Amazon drivers are contracted through a third-party called a delivery service provider (DSP). We aren’t Amazon employees like those who work in the distribution or fulfillment centres; we are considered contractors.

Most delivery shifts are 10 hours. For me, it’s about a 30-minute drive to the warehouse and another 30-minute drive for me to get back home to Scappoose, Oregon. So by the end of the day, I’ve driven nearly 12 hours.

I like to make a meal plan before the four days I work. I make sure to make lunches that are full of protein, so I have enough energy while I am making deliveries. We burn a lot of calories on the job. I also like to have dinner done so when I get home and am exhausted I don’t have to cook.

My alarm goes off at 4 a.m. on the day of my shift. I wake up, guzzle down a couple cups of coffee, check the weather report and be sure to stretch for 15 minutes.

I arrive at the DSP distribution centre at 5:30 a.m. and receive the keys to the van around 5:45 a.m. We wait in four rows, 45 vans per row. It’s like being guided on an airport tarmac. There’s lots of yelling.

When it’s our turn, we have 20 minutes to load our vans and leave the lot, so you are sweating by the time you get started. Each tote can be up to 50 pounds. We load about 300 packages into our vans, and unload them one-by-one throughout the day.

Then you’re off. The drive to your first delivery can be up to 45 minutes away. I deliver in northeast Portland and southern Washington, where it can get very rural.

There’s a system Amazon uses that tells you how many packages you have in your van, and based on the algorithm can tell you if you are ahead or behind on your deliveries in a prescribed amount of time per shift.

The Android device Amazon issues its drivers for deliveries is called a “rabbit,” and maps out your deliveries in terms of how many stops you have. The algorithm is loosely based on 20 stops per hour.

Depending on where you deliver — like in a city with apartment complexes or suburbs that are dense — you can deliver up to 40 packages in an hour, or a delivery every one or two minutes. If you deliver in rural parts of the state, it can be only 17 stops in two hours if you are up in the mountains or on gravel roads.

If you have to go to the bathroom, scope out the nearest public restrooms before your shift. Know where the grocery stores are and public parks with restrooms. Sometimes in developing areas, there’s construction sites with portable toilets. Stay hydrated, but be aware of where you can go if you need to.

If you are a well-organised driver, you can sometimes be up to 15 stops ahead of schedule. If you are ahead, sometimes they will make you “rescue” another driver who is behind and take a few totes from their load. When all your packages have been dropped, you head back to the depot for a final inspection.

As delivery drivers we did not get any extra training for Prime Day.

Any of us who have been here through the summer, we’ve already experienced what peak season and volume is all about. Prime Day and Christmas is not going to be more than what we’ve already done.

From April to July our vans were packed to the roofs because of the pandemic. I am not concerned about it, and most of the other drivers aren’t either.

Most people think being a delivery driver for Amazon is a driving job. It’s not. It’s a delivery job. Some days you can walk up to ten miles a day.

There’s a lot of turnover at Amazon because it is a very physical and solitary job. Sometimes it can feel like a driver with six-months experience is already a veteran, with turnover being so high.

Delivery drivers get in and out of the van over 200 times a day, so turning ankles, blowing out knees, and dog bites are not a matter of if they will happen, but when. I make sure to mitigate my own risk by wearing the right shoes and gear. I try and stay healthy and prepared for what can happen out on the road. I wear rain gear if it is wet and dark, because working when you are soaking wet is not fun.

You can have up to 30 deliveries in one apartment complex, up to three flights of stairs back and forth. Pet owners like ordering those 50-pound bags of food on Amazon, so we have to carry those out of the van and up flights of stairs. Since starting in March, I’ve lost 20 pounds of body fat. On my days off, it’s hard to walk up and down my own stairs at home.

We get paid hourly, but can get overtime, too. In some parts of the country, the job pays $US15 an hour; I wouldn’t do this job for $US15 an hour. In the Pacific Northwest, the pay is a little higher while the cost of living is fairly moderate. I’ve been able to get some bonuses and raises in the last seven months. During the peak of the pandemic, we received an extra $US3 an hour and a bonus.

Once you get the gist of the job, it can be very boring. I listen to a lot of podcasts like “The Daily” by the New York Times, Pardon My Take by Barstool Sports, or Bill Russell’s podcast.

My experience working for Amazon as a delivery driver has been overall positive.

At the height of the pandemic, Amazon provided us gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers. I’ve felt really safe in the warehouse, because there are people walking around making sure everyone is staying six-feet apart.

Some warehouses — like mine — have 60-inch TVs that show you with a virtual green hoop around you to make sure you aren’t too close to anyone else. When the wildfire smoke made the air quality hazardous in Portland, they closed the warehouse for our safety.

Sometimes I feel like my biggest concern is the customers. They often come charging out of their houses with no masks on demanding their packages. I wish more people would just wait until we place the package on the front porch before opening their doors.

I’ve never had a bad experience with a customer, but other drivers in Facebook and Reddit groups have received notes that contain a sense of entitlement or just straight up hate for drivers like we are idiots. Prime customers can write notes for the drivers on where they want packages to be delivered and sometimes a customer wants a package delivered to their back door, which cuts into our delivery window and can push us behind schedule.

I’ve been in customer service my whole life, so I try to smile and say hello even if it is under my mask. Some porches you walk up to have snacks and signs thanking essential workers. There’s definitely gratitude for what we do out there.

We are like the ice cream truck for adults. People get excited when we pull up. Once you get used to a certain route, you begin to notice the homes that order from Amazon every single day.

Amazon has not responded to Business Insider’s request for comment.

An earlier version of this article was first published on Business Insider October 14, 2020.