Delivery Risks Rise as Coronavirus Spreads Across the US


The last mile has become a frontline in the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers are becoming nervous about contracting Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and are turning in huge numbers to online shopping, putting pressure on delivery services.

Anxiety levels are running high. Nearly half of American consumers are already avoiding shopping centers, according to a Coresight Research pollOpens a new window , with close to three-quarters saying they’ll steer clear of the mall if the virus spreads.

And with the World Health Organization giving the symbolic “pandemic” designation to the virus, the bottom line is that “it is going to get worse,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the internationall-respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a congressional hearing in Washington. He added, “It is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.” As he spoke, the WHO reported the virus had infected more than 120,000 people in six continents and killed more than 4,300.

Retail operations are already feeling the strain. Reports from across the country suggest Amazon Prime customers are either having trouble getting their hands on stockpiled items such as water, toilet paper and antibacterial wipes, or are receiving messages from Amazon warning of delivery delays.

And as if the spread of the coronavirus weren’t enough, Amazon turned the screw on itself a bit when it announced recently the rollout of “Amazon Prime Now,” the same-day service involving three million items in Dallas, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.

Amazon promised that orders placed as late as 1 p.m. will reach customers by 6 p.m. the same day, though the pledge is evidently coming under pressure and may well end up damaging Amazon’s same-day branding.

Smaller Delivery Workforce

All this comes at a time when the last mile is under-resourced. Courier and messenger companies delivering packages reduced payrolls by 12,200 workers in February, ending an 11-month expansion period, according to preliminary employment figures from the Bureau of Labor StatisticsOpens a new window .

The delivery drivers in those jobs face the hazard of coming into contact with scores of consumers every day, increasing their exposure to the disease. That could mean a high infection rate. And compounding it is the financial risk that many will not get paid if they’re off work sick.

The business response to date has been mixed. Door Dash, the on-demand food delivery service, said that its “Dasher” delivery operatives, many of them so-called gig economy workers and thus generally ineligible for sick pay and other benefits, would get compensation if they have to take time off due to the virus.

It may be no coincidence that DoorDash is based in California. The state introduced legislation on January 1 requiring companies to reclassify independent contractors like Dashers as employees, providing them with associated benefits in the process.

Postmates this week launched an “emergency fleet relief fund” that covers the costs of coronavirus-related medical appointments and expenses for flexible workers and couriers. “This fund will allow couriers in impacted states to take proactive and preventative steps,” the company says.

Interestingly, Postmates has also taken a stance. It says that “now is the time to put aside the politics of the gig economy and develop creative and durable emergency support for frontline workers.”

Inflexible on Flex

Amazon has a different point of view. It informed its Amazon Flex parcel “delivery partners” — aka independent contractors — to simply remain at home if they get sickOpens a new window . That effectively means they won’t be paid at all as they’re only remunerated per “delivery block” – basically a shift – completed.

The company has offered Flex workers tips on hand washing, using tissues and greetings methods. It has also gone so far as to set up email support for those coming into close contact with a coronavirus patient.

The process of infection works both ways, though, with customers also looking for non-contact deliveries. And last week, Postmates launched a Dropoff Options service that enables shoppers to specify how they’d like to receive goods. New options include meeting delivery workers curbside, or having items left at the door.

Walmart is ahead of the curve here. Last year, the retail giant rolled out its In Home Delivery service, where personnel get access to a home when the occupant is out using a smart lock and task-specific pass code. That could prove a popular option in the pandemic era.