Update: In an email to Intelligencer, a spokesperson for UPS disputed what he called “an arguably fictional account,” and said that the company is in the process of distributing hand sanitizers to workers. He also claimed that trucks are regularly sanitized. “Our workforce has been provided information and supplies to manage health risks, and UPS facilities are operating at high standards for cleanliness and professionalism. The safety and health of our employees is extremely important as we care about each other, our families and the communities where we live and work,” he said.
Warehouse workers and delivery drivers are carrying the American economy on their backs. Not only has the outbreak of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, increased their workload, it creates dangerous working conditions that corporations have done little to mitigate. Temporary raises, the addition of hand sanitizer or the occasional canister of Lysol wipes, the hiring of new staff; the measures introduced by companies like Amazon and Wegman’s and others are piecemeal solutions. Workers, meanwhile, continue to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to keep their jobs. Many still lack basic paid leave.
Some also worry that they may be helping spread COVID-19 to others. John, who loads UPS trucks at a facility in Philadelphia and is a member of the Teamsters, is symptomatic for the virus. He told Intelligencer by phone that he believes conditions at his workplace may threaten public health. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the virus does not live long on cardboard surfaces; it seems to disintegrate on packages after about 24 hours. But dirty facilities and inadequate sick leave create hazards at work, and in turn, may prevent communities from containing the pandemic.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity. John’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
How are you feeling?
Illness-wise, not that bad at all. In terms of stress and anxiety and stuff over the past two weeks, it’s been just unbearable. I haven’t been sleeping at all. I came home from work yesterday and I was symptomatic. Shortly after that, I started getting chest pain and a sore throat and coughing. And I just keep thinking, like, I’m killing all these people.
So that’s how I feel about it. I’ve tried to read as much as I can about the virus and what the CDC says, and they say it can stay on cardboard for 24 hours and plastic for 72. In a given day, I might touch packages that go to a thousand people, maybe more than that. Maybe 1,500 people every single day. I could have just been spreading it for the last two weeks. I didn’t sign up to kill people, and that’s what it feels like I’m doing.
Tell me a little bit more about your job. What do you do for UPS
So I worked for UPS for about five years, and I’ve actually worked in a few different positions there. I’ve gone out in the trucks before. But right now, I load four of those brown packaged cars that you see driving around every night. They’re pretty much full, like floor to ceiling, wall to wall in the back, when they first go out. Most of us who load trucks handle about four times as many packages as a driver.
Has the volume of packages increased since the outbreak began?
Yes, it’s pretty much just increasing every day. I’ve worked Christmas seasons that weren’t this busy. And that’s always our busiest time of year, a few weeks before Christmas. But it’s just crazy. Then the other thing is, simultaneously, you have people calling out sick. I overheard our building manager yesterday say we had about 20 call outs with COVID symptoms. So that’s 5 to 10 percent of our total workforce at the building I work at, calling out. And that’s just going up and going up.
Last night when I was at work there were new hires. There are literally just people there from the service industry and stuff, and they don’t have jobs and they need incomes. And UPS, while they’re infecting their workforce, is just throwing these people into that situation. Those people are desperate for income, but they’re gonna get no benefits. They don’t get any paid sick leave. They don’t get health care through the company because to get it you have to work here for nine months, even if you’re in the union.
And you’re working overtime?
Yeah. So technically, because we’re doing a really physically intensive manual-labor job, any time we work over five hours that’s considered overtime and they pay us time and a half. Because I’m just moving like 50 pound boxes nonstop, like walking in circles. But I’ve been working probably 20 to 25 percent more. Probably even more than that, because it’s supposed to be the slow season. This is usually the slowest time of year. Instead, it’s the busiest time of year.
But yeah, normally I would come in maybe at 3:30 a.m. Now they are talking about having us come in at 11:30. So that would be the night before. They also want us to start working mandatory Saturdays. That’s supposed to start in a week or two. They’re trying to increase everybody’s hours, and have more staffing, but at the same time, their workforce is just dropping. And it just seems delusional.
Are they letting you take any safety precautions due to the virus?
It’s very much business as usual. As of this Monday, they did give us rubber gloves. But they tear. I’ll use six or seven pairs of them in a shift if I wear them. They’re just cheap latex gloves and that’s all UPS has given us. One day last week, we had no soap in our bathroom. We have a bathroom with three sinks. One of the sinks works. And they say they’re sanitizing the bathroom, but it has not been cleaned in months. It is disgusting. So we have one unsanitary bathroom that has, like, a 50 percent chance of having soap.
They haven’t given us hand sanitizer whatsoever. I thought they said they were going to give his hand sanitizer, I’m not sure if that was official, but I was told that by a manager. It never happened. So they’re basically doing nothing. And I can tell you for a fact, they don’t wipe down our equipment or clean our equipment ever.
They weren’t cleaning the equipment before the virus, either?
No. We have these belts that we wear with a device on it, a little bigger than a cell phone, and then a little finger thing that we scan packages with. But the belts are fabric and they’ve never washed them since they were introduced like a few years ago. And the scanners are never wiped down at all. The trucks aren’t wiped down.
And I would guess that it’s difficult to practice social distancing at work?
It’s literally impossible.
Is there an expectation that you will come to work even if you’re not feeling well?
I don’t think there was an expectation there. But there’s definitely some kind of pressure. Above board, they’ll tell you, you know, if you have any symptoms, even if it’s not symptoms of COVID-19, just call out. But people need the income. It’s uncertain times and people don’t have any savings. If they have like a light sore throat or a cough or something, they’re going to keep coming in. And I can tell you firsthand, I’ve seen people coughing on boxes. The other day when I was leaving the last shift I did work, I saw a driver walking in just cough very deeply and directly onto his bare hands on his way into the building. People are worried about their families and just having enough.
Does no hand sanitizer work also mean no masks?
Some of the drivers I’ve noticed have masks, but it’s maybe 10 percent of the drivers. And I think they’re providing them themselves. They’re bringing their own masks.
Is UPS in regular communication with workers about the virus?
None whatsoever. The Monday before last was the first time they mentioned there even was a virus. They gave out sheets of paper, but it just says if you’re feeling sick, stay home and wash your hands a lot. And that’s all it says. I mean, I’m paraphrasing. But shouldn’t we be doing those things ordinarily? So it’s really just business as usual.
Has the union been helpful to you as you navigate this situation?
I believe they are on my side firmly. But the union isn’t as powerful as they used to be, I don’t think. They were negotiating with UPS to try and get us some sort of relief, and I know they got us ten days of paid sick leave. But for anyone who was part-time, which is just under 40 hours a week, and that’s the majority of employees in my position — our sick days are paid at three and a half hours a day. So they’re giving us ten sick days, but it’s three and a half hours of pay.
Do you feel that UPS is putting the public at risk?
It’s literally murder. It goes beyond risk. I might have been contagious for the past two weeks and I might have delivered packages to 20,000 people, touched 20,000 people’s packages. And I’m one person. Each of those people could infect, you know, two to three people.
And we’re doing a lot of nonessential work. I do understand that we are essential and we need to be open because I am shipping coronavirus test kits, I’m shipping heat lamps, tents, scrubs, masks. But more than half of what I’m shipping is junk. I shipped a sofa last week. I ship someone a tuxedo rental. Beanie hats, frisbees, a volleyball net, other furniture. It doesn’t matter. It’s just junk. We were literally doing business as usual and all of that could be contagious to people.
So you think UPS should just be shipping essentials right now?
It’s incredibly irresponsible. I think at the end of this whole pandemic in the U.S., however many deaths there are, the people with the most blood on their hands will probably be our CEO, David Abney, or Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Maybe President Trump.
Back to you for a minute. Do you think you’re going to be able to get COVID-19 testing?
UPS put up information about testing and they said that in the future, we will be able to get tested for coronavirus through Quest Diagnostics. But they haven’t given us a timeline for that and it hasn’t happened.
So you don’t know how you’re getting tested.
I don’t expect that I will get tested. They’ve told me at some indefinite point in the future, UPS workers will be able to get tested. And I can say pretty definitively that no one at my center has been tested for coronavirus at all.