Amazon’s ‘expendable workforce’ echoes trucking’s biggest issues

June 18, 2021

Chuck Robinson

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The “expendable workforce” management ethos at Amazon isn’t new.

The New York Times in mid-June published results of its investigation into Amazon’s employee management practices, and that phrase popped up.

An Amazon worker quoted in the coverage dubbed the management mindset at the company as the “expendable workforce” issue.

The published articles detail Amazon’s exceptionally high turnover rate of 150% a year. The turnover is the product of the mindset of founder Jeff Bezos that people were inherently lazy and an entrenched workforce created a “march to mediocrity,” as a former Amazon human resources vice president put it.

Amazon adopted a short-term-employment model where employees had little opportunity for advancement, according to the coverage. Amazon uses technology to hire, monitor and manage workers, and the algorithms often don’t factor in human health, such as people getting sick with COVID-19.

In fact, Amazon encourages employee turnover by turning off automatic raises after three years on the job and limiting upward mobility for hourly workers.

The same expendable workforce management ethos has plagued the trucking industry for decades. The difference is that the trucking industry is larger and has more slowly evolved to this line of thinking. Comparatively, Amazon seems to have sprung quickly from nearly nowhere. Add to that a more concentrated focus on an expendable workforce by Amazon management.

Amazon is always hiring, trying to fill challenging schedules but not wanting to take into account workers’ needs beyond paying $18 plus change an hour. The same can be said of certain trucking mega fleets, all crying about a driver shortage. Government statistics tell a different story, mind you.

‘Shortage,’ you say?

The constant churn and complaints of a chronic employee shortage certainly sound familiar to anyone tuned into the trucking industry. None of us can count the thousands of times we’ve heard it mentioned that there is a driver shortage. Media parrot the talking point and only rarely question it, despite the federal government clearly showing statistics that it just is not true.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a study in 2019 showing that higher pay and better working conditions would alleviate any perceived driver shortage.

The driver shortage ballyhoo is ginned up whenever proponents promote allowing truck drivers younger than 21 to cross state lines and drive in interstate commerce. The point seems clear that the mega fleets want to add teenagers to their pool of employees for their expendable work force.

Amazon has accomplished a lot in just under two decades with its mindset that workers are expendable. The trucking industry has been at it for double or triple that.

Trucking’s longer timeline

The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated the trucking industry. Congress got rid of most operating authority restrictions, which were tied up with unions and protected rates. Deregulation let manufacturers reduce inventories and move products more efficiently.

What has happened for truck drivers since then?

Pay is lower, measured in constant dollars. There are more restrictions and regulations. Detention time has grown into a real issue, and often shippers and receivers callously neglect basic human considerations, like having clean restrooms for drivers to use.

If anything in trucking echoes Amazon’s strict monitoring of workers, it’s the hours of service regulations coupled with the electronic logging device mandate. Driver-facing cameras seem to take it to another level, one that causes many of us to wonder if a driver has a right to privacy.

If there is a shortage of drivers at some trucking businesses, why isn’t treating the drivers better on the table for discussion?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Repeal the overtime exemption for truck drivers in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Address problems with shippers and receivers detaining drivers without pay and without providing necessary parking facilities.
  • Allow personal conveyance for drivers to find a safe place to park after a shipper or receiver has held them up if the shipper or receiver won’t do it.
  • Keep a lid on minimum liability insurance requirements so premiums don’t drive small business truckers into insolvency.
  • Understand the danger of split speed limits that obstruct traffic with vehicles at varying speed limits and the danger of other “safety” regulations, such as the perennially proposed side under guard mandate.

The drive for efficiency

We live in an e-commerce world, where everything’s 24/7, and loads have to be just in time.

Engineers are enamored of developing technology that makes experienced drivers expendable. Fleets are pushing for autonomous trucks not only to get from point A to point B, but also to streamline equipment maintenance, secure and maintain the cargo, and carry as much as possible via platooning, for instance.

When engineers talk about automation, they primarily discuss assets – which are trucks and trailers – and only after prodding do they mention people. Oh, people will still be needed, they say.

They talk about seamless deliveries by trucks arriving at just the right time for the shipper or receiver to take the load. Wouldn’t that be nice for human drivers too? They talk about vehicles becoming their own service diagnostician, notifying the service center when maintenance is required. They talk of interconnected industries.

The key to all of this is to replace a driver’s nervous system and their intuition with sensors and algorithms.

The reason for this drive toward efficiency is that the truck industry measures everything by cost per mile. Every company is squeezing pennies. They even believe this is the natural evolution of things.

In fact, some use the Bureau of Labor Statistics figure of a more than 90% turnover rate among mega fleets to rationalize their end goal. The rate proves it is a terrible lifestyle, so long-haul drivers should be glad the industry is disrespectful and doing its best to take their jobs.

Not just trucking or Amazon

The expendable workforce ethos has infiltrated many industries, not just trucking and Amazon’s delivery service. Often companies hire independent contractors to skirt requirements and off load responsibilities. We have seen this in construction, certainly.

Lawmakers attempted to address some of the related inequities when they passed California’s Assembly Bill 5. It attempted to delineate who is and is not an independent contractor and it defaults to everyone being an employee, and that’s not the answer either.

The problem is the abrupt nature of the change, especially with owner-operators who have managed to work with the present system and have expensive equipment to pay for and maintain. They are invested in the present model and vulnerable. And they know someone who is vulnerable is likely to get hurt when the industry lurches in a new direction because of sweeping regulatory change like an over-reaching AB5.

While there could have been good that would have come from the intent of the legislation, the meat cleaver approach will cause unnecessary damage to true owner-operators. OOIDA knows this and opposes AB5.

The expendable workforce ethos and drive for efficiency is bringing upon us monumental change. Many painful problems are arising because of it, and OOIDA is making sure that lawmakers and regulators realize how real people will be hurt. The Amazon-like focus on efficiency can easily ignore human factors and needs. Lawmakers need to know how policy affects the drivers on the road. It is more important now than it ever has been for truck drivers to make sure their voices are heard. LL

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Chuck Robinson formerly was senior copy editor for a weekly trade publication serving the fresh produce industry. He has served trade publications, horticultural journals and community newspapers for 25 years.