‘Filthy’ facilities, no masks: Philly UPS workers face down COVID delivery surge

A United Parcel Service driver loads boxes during a delivery, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in downtown Seattle. UPS and other companies have been busy as people staying home under state-wide mandate amidst one of the worst outbreaks of the new coronavirus in the U.S. turn to online shopping to meet their needs. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A United Parcel Service driver loads boxes during a delivery, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in downtown Seattle. UPS and other companies have been busy as people staying home under state-wide mandate amidst one of the worst outbreaks of the new coronavirus in the U.S. turn to online shopping to meet their needs. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The warehouse and delivery workers keeping the region stocked with medicine, clothes, toys and countless other packaged items say they’re reaching a breaking point overloaded with delivery orders from online retailers, and working in unsanitary conditions.

Kissma Thomas, a ramp agent at the UPS facility near the Philadelphia International Airport, described the last few weeks as “peak season, times three.” But she said workers like her were laboring in “filthy” warehouses, unloading trucks and containers with little protection from the contagion.

“They’re not giving us masks, they’re not giving us gloves … Each delivery chute is no more than three inches away from the next person,” Thomas said. “UPS doesn’t care.”

It could all amount to a ticking time bomb, Thomas fears. Due to HIPAA privacy rules, UPS has declined to say how many workers had contracted the virus, but Thomas said she had seen sickened workers stay on the job.

“We have twice as much work. And we’re not spring chickens,” she said. “You’re working to the bone. We’re going to be dropping like flies.”

Parcel services like UPS and other delivery services have been particularly hard hit as Americans increasingly turn to online buying under shelter-in-place rules. Similar problems at Amazon warehouses have sparked employee protests and walk-outs.

UPS employs thousands of people at three regional facilities. Richard Hooker Jr., Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 623, the union that represents 4,500 of them, said that his union had reached an agreement with UPS to improve working conditions on Monday.

He said that the company was slow to react to the encroaching virus.

“A lot of people are concerned. We don’t have protective gear. The buildings are not cleaned properly, the bathrooms aren’t cleaned regularly. For this virus not to spread quickly things need to be cleaned, but it’s not happening,” he said. “If we’re essential enough to keep us working, that same level of intensity and admiration needs to be put toward the worker and making sure they’re protected.”

Matthew O’Connor, a senior public relations manager with UPS, declined a request for an interview. But in a written statement, he said the company’s agreement with the Teamsters would increase facility and vehicle cleaning, distribute 250,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and 34,000 masks to its employees nationally, and institute new social distancing measures to reduce the likelihood of transmission.

“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,” O’Connor wrote, in an email.

He said package-sorters, who had worked “shoulder-to-shoulder,” on the line would be given more space to work. Drivers would no longer be required to obtain signatures for delivery receipts. Entry and exit rules at facility checkpoints would be relaxed to allow for greater distancing. Sick workers would be sent home and given 10 days of compensation if diagnosed with the virus.

Hooker welcomed the news, but described the changes as a first step.

“I wouldn’t call it a victory. I’d say they gave our members a fighting chance to keep America running,” he said.

Workers like Thomas were less convinced. She said it was “virtually impossible” to truly institute social distancing on a sorting line. And she said workers had long complained about dirty facilities, to little avail.

“If they come on Sunday to sterilize the building, I will eat my words,” she said. “But that’s not gonna happen.”

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