The bizarre reason Amazon drivers are hanging phones in trees near Whole Foods

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It sounds like a futuristic version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s dystopian 1906 novel about Chicago slaughterhouse workers: But instead of toiling in meatpacking plants, modern day Chicago workers are resorting to desperate measures to earn a few bucks from Amazon—notably hanging phones from trees to win jobs.

According to Bloomberg, the phone-hanging scheme lets drivers game the system by which Amazon awards delivery routes though its Flex app, which pays $18 hour/per hour for routes that take two to four hours to complete. The Flex app awards routes from Amazon’s warehouses and from Whole Foods grocery stores, which the company owns.

The purpose of hanging phones in trees is to trick Amazon’s dispatch mechanism into believing the drivers are closer to a warehouse or store than they really are. The Flex app awards routes in part by a driver’s proximity to a pick-up point.

The phones in the trees contain the Flex app and are synched with other phones belonging to the drivers. As Bloomberg describes, the scheme appears to be run by a single group or individual who masterminds the operation:

The phones in trees seem to serve as master devices that dispatch routes to multiple nearby drivers in on the plot, according to drivers who have observed the process. They believe an unidentified person or entity is acting as an intermediary between Amazon and the drivers and charging drivers to secure more routes, which is against Amazon’s policies.

The perpetrators likely dangle multiple phones in the trees to spread the work around to multiple Amazon Flex accounts and avoid detection by Amazon

A person familiar with the scheme told Bloomberg that the mastermind likely takes an $8 cut from the $18 hourly wage paid to the drivers, who may in some cases lack documentation required for the job. Amazon declined to comment on the phenomenon.

The phone-hanging tactic may reflect increased competition among workers for Flex jobs among workers at a time when Uber and Lyft rides—another popular source of so-called gig work—are in decline due to the pandemic.

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