Every year, workers at the Postal Service and UPS expect to work long hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas. âThis is like our Super Bowl,â said Kimberly Karol, president of the Iowa Postal Workers (APWU). âEmployees really do rally together.â
But this year has been like no other. Workers were still catching their breath from last yearâs holiday peak when the pandemic struck and online ordering ratcheted up. It was like Christmas all over againâand it never stopped.
Package volumes at the Postal Service are up 40 percent compared to this time last year, and understaffing is intensified by Covidâmore than 50,000 of the 600,000 postal workers have had to take pandemic-related leave.
âTheyâre working from 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with very little off time,â said Becky Livingston, St. Louis APWU president. âPeople are getting tapped on the shoulder saying, âWe need you four more hours.ââ
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. âBasically 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,â he said.
âThe plantâs so backed up that theyâre sending raw unsorted mail, whole trays to carriers to manually sort and case ourselves. Everyoneâs spending an hour a day just casing up mail thatâs supposed to be run through a machine, because thereâs no one to run the machine. Thatâs on top of having 400 packages to deliver on your route.â
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. âThereâs not a lot of space to even walk through the building,â said processing clerk Courtney Jenkins, director of organization for Baltimore APWU. âThereâs less space to socially distance.â
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 canât. At the start of December it announced it would stop picking up parcels from six major retailers including Macyâs, Gap, and L.L. Bean. (The Postal Service absorbs packages that UPS and FedEx wonât 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 bothâbut 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, âtheyâre doing the same job as I am,â said Corey Levesque, a delivery driver and steward in Rhode Island. As new 22.4 drivers are hired, âyou have people saying, âHow come I get paid six bucks less and do the same work?â And you have no real answer. They were sold out in that contract.â
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 ânoâ to stick.
Now a slate led by Bostonâs Sean OâBrien and Louisvilleâs Fred Zuckerman is running to lead the union in next yearâs 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 Driversâunbenefited temps who deliver packages from their own cars. âTheyâve just thrown the PVDs at everything,â Levesque said. âIf a driver goes out heavy, theyâll send a PVD to them and have them take work.
âOn the one hand thatâs alleviated some of the overtime we normally put in on peak. On the other hand there are some people who want the overtime, and theyâre taking that away.â
In some parts of the country, regular drivers are forced to work six-day weeks. In other places theyâre 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. Theyâre 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 benefitsâand guaranteed them eight hours a day. âWorkers are pretty pissed,â said Cecil, a steward in Greensboro, North Carolina. âA lot of our folks want these inside full-time jobs that the company refuses to create. Instead theyâre giving someone off the street that job for the month of December.â
This is grueling work. âYou never know what is in the trailer,â said Kristen Jefferson, who unloads trailers in Chicago. âIt could be a bulk load, 53 feet of unloading furniture that could weigh 80-140 pounds.
âIf 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.â
In the Postal Service too, each union has a permatemp tier for new hires. Fields has been a ârural carrier associateâ for three years. Soon he hopes to graduate to a career position.
But âIâm glad I was still a sub during all this, because at least Iâve gotten paid for all this overtime,â 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.
âPeople deliver 200 packages a day and theyâre only getting paid for 60-80,â Fields said. âOn Black Friday they were out till 9 or 10 p.m. and got paid the same.â
Itâs a sign of how bad conditions are that UPS and the Postal Service both struggle to retain workers despite the countryâs sky-high unemployment.
âWe have single parents that donât have childcare for 14-hour days,â APWUâs Livingston said. âThose people are feeling like theyâre being forced to resign.
âWeâd like to be able to give them encouragement that itâs going to change, but we donât know when itâs going to change. Weâve been in peak season mode since March.â
âTheyâre going to have to really look at what theyâre paying postal employees, especially at starting salary levels, because we donât really keep people long,â Karol said. âAmazon is one of the bigger competitors.â (Read more here: âBuilding Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers.â)
In UPS warehouses, âturnover is insane,â Cecil said. âItâs pretty rough work. They might hire 20 people and five stay.â
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 arenât happening.
The Postal Service had 116 nurses nationwide and 30 vacancies last summerâcramping its capacity to do contact tracingâand the job openings werenât 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 âupon his return proudly announced his refusal to name others he had been in contact with, because he wasnât going to give them time off,â Karol said. âHe considers all sick leave usage as slacking.â
At UPS, âthey are still having people work in close proximity,â Jefferson said. âPeople are still doubled up in trailers. Many people in my hub have tested positive for Covid.â
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, âWe can enforce social distancing for you,â Levesque said. âWe had safety committee members at the guard shack making sure members were coming in close to their start times instead of hanging out.
âWe 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.â
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. âWhat all this is putting into workersâ hearts and minds is that the boss does not care about you,â Jenkins said.
In the Teamsters, âthis year has illustrated that we need new leadership,â Levesque said. President James P. Hoffa, who is retiring next year, âjust flat-out does not hold places like UPS accountable,â said Columbus driver Michael Chapman.
In the Rural Carriers, âI donât understand what union leadership even thinks theyâre doing,â Fields said. âEveryone is so mad at them. Across the political spectrum, every rural carrier conversation is like, âWhy do we even have a union?â
âIt just shows the need for organizing. We have the power in this situation. Weâre so short-staffedâtheyâre depending on us to get those packages out.â
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.