When Algorithms Manage Humans Amazon drivers say AI unfairly graded their performance.

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Amazon delivery driver working

Some delivery drivers fired by Amazon contend that the retailer’s automated management system played an unfair role in terminating their employment.

What’s new: Drivers in Amazon Flex, an Uber-like program that enables independent drivers to earn money delivering the company’s packages, said the program downgraded their performance unjustly and terminated them without warning, Bloomberg reported.

Flex or inflexible? Flex rates drivers automatically on how punctually they pick up and deliver packages and how closely they follow instructions like “place the package on my back porch.”

  • Former drivers said the program didn’t account for unavoidable delays caused by obstacles like long lines at Amazon distribution centers, gated apartment complexes, or bad weather. A former Amazon manager told Bloomberg the company was aware that its system had flaws that could lead to bad publicity but decided that higher efficiency was worth that risk.
  • Flex drivers have 10 days to appeal termination. However, drivers and anonymous sources told Bloomberg that email responses seemed to be automated and appeals rarely succeed. Drivers who lose an appeal can spend $200 to arbitrate the case.
  • A company spokesperson told The Batch that human managers review Flex drivers flagged for poor performance, and that an algorithm does not make the final decision to terminate employment.

Behind the news: The U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently forced Amazon to pay Flex drivers $61.7 million in tips it had withheld. More broadly, Amazon’s penchant for using automated systems to manage personnel has been a steady source of controversy.

  • In 2019, documents obtained by The Verge showed that the company used algorithms to track productivity in its warehouses and fired workers who did not meet performance benchmarks.
  • In 2018, the company abandoned a hiring algorithm after an internal audit found that it was biased against women.
  • The company requires its fleet drivers to consent to being monitored by AI-powered cameras that watch for signs of drowsiness or distraction. Some drivers have declined to work with the cameras, calling them an invasion of privacy.

Why it matters: Organizations increasingly rely on algorithms to help make decisions that impact peoples’ lives, including who gets a bank loan, a job, or jail time. Public backlash has led to proposals like the Algorithmic Accountability Act, which would require the U.S. government to develop rules that mitigate algorithmic bias and provide ways for citizens to appeal automated decisions.

We’re thinking: All algorithms are prone to some degree of error. At a company the size of Amazon, even a tiny error can have a large impact. Every effort should be made to audit such systems for fairness, make sure the tradeoffs between flexibility and efficiency are transparent, and treat  individuals with compassion and respect.


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