It was just after New Year’s when Jonathon Ervin began to feel that Amazon was turning the screws on him. Ervin owns one of 3,500 small businesses that exist solely to deliver packages for the retail giant. Since launching his company, Battle Tested Strategies, in 2019, the Air Force veteran and reservist has delivered more than 10 million packages and earned positive performance reviews from Amazon. In a 2020 newsletter, Amazon championed Ervin as a face of its commitment to Black business owners.
Last year, after a summer of blistering heat, high package counts, and malfunctioning air conditioners, BTS’s drivers began organizing a union with the Teamsters. He recognized the union—according to Ervin, against Amazon’s wishes—and bargained a contract that took effect in April, making his employees the first Amazon drivers in the US to ratify a union contract.
The vans that BTS leases are inspected by Amazon for roadworthiness before each shift. After this winter’s holiday rush, known as “peak,” subsided, Ervin began to feel these inspections had morphed into hunts for reasons to keep his vehicles off the road. No infraction seemed too minor. A cracked tail light, an improperly mounted phone, a seat belt that retracted too sluggishly—never problems before, were now suddenly excuses to ground his vans. Now, Amazon is trying to sever its contract with Ervin near the end of this month, which would put him out of business and his 84 drivers out of work.
“We got through peak in January, and boom. All these breaches of contract stacked up,” says Ervin, adding, “The breaches were created out of fairy dust and sprinkled punitively.”
Amazon spokesperson Eileen Hards writes that BTS has “had a track record of failing to perform,” and that the company was terminated for six breaches of contract involving failures to pay insurance providers and to complete vehicle safety audits. Five of those occurred in January, she says. She also wrote that BTS had not been truthful about the viability of its business, but declined to provide evidence. Ervin is contesting all of the breaches. He says those related to insurance were resolved last year, yet they remained on his record.
Ervin’s dispute with Amazon shows how vulnerable the companies that operate its fleets of branded vans are to the exacting demands of their lone client.
“The amount of control they have is incredible,” says Ervin. “You’re really just managing a function.”
BTS is part of Amazon’s Delivery Service Partners program, a network of small package-delivery businesses the company launched in 2018 as part of an effort to break its dependence on FedEx and UPS. The program works much like a franchise model, but without the legal protections of one. Amazon provides training, support staff, and deals on van leases, handheld devices, insurance, and maintenance. It also controls how many routes DSPs receive. The DSPs shoulder most of the liabilities, including vehicle maintenance and repair, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, and responsibility for any accidents.
Ervin joined the Air Force straight out of high school as a ticket out of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, spending 10 years on active duty before transitioning to the Reserves, where he rose to the highest rank of Chief Master Sergeant. In 2018, he was working as a field engineer, testing military equipment for the defense contractor Raytheon, when he saw an online ad for the DSP program. Amazon was looking for veterans to launch small package-delivery businesses, and Ervin was clocking the midnight shift and hankering for a change. The program seemed an exciting opportunity to apply his skill set at a disruptive company “on the tip of the spear of technology,” he thought.