Every year, workers at the Postal Service and UPS expect to work long hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “This is like our Super Bowl,” said Kimberly Karol, president of the Iowa Postal Workers (APWU). “Employees really do rally together.”
But this year has been like no other. Workers were still catching their breath from last year’s holiday peak when the pandemic struck and online ordering ratcheted up. It was like Christmas all over again—and it never stopped.
Package volumes at the Postal Service are up 40 percent compared to this time last year, and understaffing is intensified by Covid—more than 50,000 of the 600,000 postal workers have had to take pandemic-related leave.
“They’re working from 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with very little off time,” said Becky Livingston, St. Louis APWU president. “People are getting tapped on the shoulder saying, ‘We need you four more hours.’”
In Knoxville, Tennessee, rural letter carrier Alex Fields has worked almost every day for months, typically from 6 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. In October he hit 33 workdays in a row. “Basically everyone comes in the morning, takes a truck of packages before they even start the mail, comes back, does the mail, then goes out with more packages,” he said.
“The plant’s so backed up that they’re sending raw unsorted mail, whole trays to carriers to manually sort and case ourselves. Everyone’s spending an hour a day just casing up mail that’s supposed to be run through a machine, because there’s no one to run the machine. That’s on top of having 400 packages to deliver on your route.”
Some processing plants are so overwhelmed that 100 or more trucks full of mail are waiting outside, snarling traffic. A driver in Cleveland told local news he had slept in his truck for two nights while waiting to unload.
Inside the plants, packages are piled on every available surface. “There’s not a lot of space to even walk through the building,” said processing clerk Courtney Jenkins, director of organization for Baltimore APWU. “There’s less space to socially distance.”
SAME JOB, LESS PAY
At UPS too, parcel volumes are hitting record highs. Unlike the Postal Service, the company is making money hand over fist.
Fundamental to the public Postal Service is its commitment to accept all mail. UPS, on the other hand, gets to choose what it can deliver profitably and skip what it can’t. At the start of December it announced it would stop picking up parcels from six major retailers including Macy’s, Gap, and L.L. Bean. (The Postal Service absorbs packages that UPS and FedEx won’t take; its share of e-commerce deliveries doubled from October to December.)
While some UPS workers are getting too many hours, others are getting too few, as the company finds ways to foist more work onto lower-paid tiers.
One of these tiers is Article 22.4 drivers, paid $6 an hour less than regular drivers. Package delivery is the better-paying Teamster job at UPS; the warehouse workers who load and sort are mostly part-timers making less than half as much.
Created in the 2018 contract, the 22.4 was originally pitched as a hybrid position that would do a bit of both—but obviously UPS gets more bang for its buck by using these workers as a cheaper way to deliver, rather than a more expensive way to sort and load.
Sure enough, “they’re doing the same job as I am,” said Corey Levesque, a delivery driver and steward in Rhode Island. As new 22.4 drivers are hired, “you have people saying, ‘How come I get paid six bucks less and do the same work?’ And you have no real answer. They were sold out in that contract.”
THEIR OWN CARS
In fact, resistance to this new tier was the biggest reason why members voted down the 2018 tentative agreement. But the Teamsters leadership, who had proposed the concession in the first place, imposed it anyway, exploiting a constitutional loophole that requires a two-thirds vote for a “no” to stick.
Now a slate led by Boston’s Sean O’Brien and Louisville’s Fred Zuckerman is running to lead the union in next year’s one-member-one-vote election, pledging to do away with both the 22.4 tier and the two-thirds rule.
Another proliferating tier is Personal Vehicle Drivers—unbenefited temps who deliver packages from their own cars. “They’ve just thrown the PVDs at everything,” Levesque said. “If a driver goes out heavy, they’ll send a PVD to them and have them take work.
“On the one hand that’s alleviated some of the overtime we normally put in on peak. On the other hand there are some people who want the overtime, and they’re taking that away.”
In some parts of the country, regular drivers are forced to work six-day weeks. In other places they’re having trouble getting even 40 hours because PVDs are delivering so much.
GAMES WITH TIERS
Inside its warehouses, UPS is playing the same games. Most inside workers are part-timers who start at $14.50 an hour, plus benefits. They’re guaranteed 3.5 hours of work each day; they get overtime after five.
To dodge that overtime, Chris Cecil said, on his shift UPS has hired dozens of full-time seasonal workers for $16 an hour with no benefits—and guaranteed them eight hours a day. “Workers are pretty pissed,” said Cecil, a steward in Greensboro, North Carolina. “A lot of our folks want these inside full-time jobs that the company refuses to create. Instead they’re giving someone off the street that job for the month of December.”
This is grueling work. “You never know what is in the trailer,” said Kristen Jefferson, who unloads trailers in Chicago. “It could be a bulk load, 53 feet of unloading furniture that could weigh 80-140 pounds.
“If you could see my co-workers walking out of the building at the end of the day. So many of them have been broken down by UPS, and UPS does not care. They just want the packages out.”
In the Postal Service too, each union has a permatemp tier for new hires. Fields has been a “rural carrier associate” for three years. Soon he hopes to graduate to a career position.
But “I’m glad I was still a sub during all this, because at least I’ve gotten paid for all this overtime,” Fields said. Instead of hourly pay, regular rural carriers get a daily salary based on a 2017 count of their routes. There has been no adjustment for the explosion in package volume since then.
“People deliver 200 packages a day and they’re only getting paid for 60-80,” Fields said. “On Black Friday they were out till 9 or 10 p.m. and got paid the same.”
It’s a sign of how bad conditions are that UPS and the Postal Service both struggle to retain workers despite the country’s sky-high unemployment.
“We have single parents that don’t have childcare for 14-hour days,” APWU’s Livingston said. “Those people are feeling like they’re being forced to resign.
“We’d like to be able to give them encouragement that it’s going to change, but we don’t know when it’s going to change. We’ve been in peak season mode since March.”
“They’re going to have to really look at what they’re paying postal employees, especially at starting salary levels, because we don’t really keep people long,” Karol said. “Amazon is one of the bigger competitors.” (Read more here: “Building Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers.”)
In UPS warehouses, “turnover is insane,” Cecil said. “It’s pretty rough work. They might hire 20 people and five stay.”
UNIONS CARED ABOUT COVID
What about Covid safety, as cases surge across the country? The situation is bad.
At both UPS and the Postal Service, mask enforcement is lax or absent. Social distancing and contact tracing often aren’t happening.
The Postal Service had 116 nurses nationwide and 30 vacancies last summer—cramping its capacity to do contact tracing—and the job openings weren’t even posted on its website, according to a Postal Inspector General report that also chided the employer for not doing workplace temperature checks.
One postal manager contracted Covid, but “upon his return proudly announced his refusal to name others he had been in contact with, because he wasn’t going to give them time off,” Karol said. “He considers all sick leave usage as slacking.”
At UPS, “they are still having people work in close proximity,” Jefferson said. “People are still doubled up in trailers. Many people in my hub have tested positive for Covid.”
FIGHTING UNIONS VITAL
Some of the most proactive safety measures have been union-initiated. Early in the pandemic, the Des Moines APWU set up Plexiglas barriers at post office retail counters and around the desks of expeditors in the mail plants who interact with truck drivers from all over the country. The local pushed successfully for a 45-day buffer supply of gloves, masks, and sanitizer.
In Rhode Island, Teamsters Local 251 told the company, “We can enforce social distancing for you,” Levesque said. “We had safety committee members at the guard shack making sure members were coming in close to their start times instead of hanging out.
“We tried to make sure people were socially distancing in the building. We have conference calls between union stewards and the business agent twice a week to talk about what we can do.”
The stresses of the pandemic have thrown into relief the need to build enough union power to abolish the unfair tiers and win better compensation for everyone. “What all this is putting into workers’ hearts and minds is that the boss does not care about you,” Jenkins said.
In the Teamsters, “this year has illustrated that we need new leadership,” Levesque said. President James P. Hoffa, who is retiring next year, “just flat-out does not hold places like UPS accountable,” said Columbus driver Michael Chapman.
In the Rural Carriers, “I don’t understand what union leadership even thinks they’re doing,” Fields said. “Everyone is so mad at them. Across the political spectrum, every rural carrier conversation is like, ‘Why do we even have a union?’
“It just shows the need for organizing. We have the power in this situation. We’re so short-staffed—they’re depending on us to get those packages out.”
This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Alexandra Bradbury is editor and co-director of Labor Notes.