Over the past few years, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve become increasingly reliant on fast shipping for our online purchases. Still, there’s a human cost behind all those cardboard boxes showing up at your door every day, and with record-breaking heat waves around the globe, package delivery drivers are suffering through inhuman working conditions.
Spoiler alert: human-caused climate change is real, and it’s making for incredibly dangerous conditions for those who work outdoors. Among these workers are delivery drivers for companies like UPS. Some employees have taken to social media to show just how hot it gets inside UPS delivery trucks — which do not have air conditioning. According to what’s been posted online, it gets unbelievably hot in the back of a UPS delivery truck.
Those conditions can turn deadly. Early in July, a 24-year-old UPS delivery driver named Esteban Chavez Jr. suffered heat stroke and died while working his route in Pasadena, CA. Ambient temperatures were in the upper 90s, which isn’t uncommon for that region during the summer. With temperatures rising, it’s unlikely that Esteban’s heat-related death will be the last we see this year.
I spoke with a longtime UPS driver from Florida, Anthony Cantu, who told me the company won’t even entertain the idea of installing air conditioning in delivery trucks. Cantu said the company’s reasoning is that “it wouldn’t even do anything” to help cool the trucks. But given how little ventilation there is in the cargo area of the typical UPS truck, it’s hard to imagine A/C wouldn’t help at least a little bit, to avoid temperatures that can present a real danger to drivers.
UPS hasn’t shown any sort of data or evidence to back up its claims. When asked by Jalopnik whether the company had done any kind of study on installing A/C in its trucks, UPS simply said it doesn’t share that information.
Currently, the company has no plans to install A/C in its delivery vehicles, and drivers have to individually submit a request to have a fan installed. When asked by Jalopnik what the company plans to do to keep workers safe during extreme summer heat, a UPS representative provided the following statement:
The health and safety of our employees is our highest priority. UPS drivers are trained to work outdoors and to manage the effects of hot weather. Preparation, rest, hydration and maintaining good health practices are key to working outdoors. UPS invests more than $260 million annually to implement programs focused on safety, including working in hot weather.
For example, we have a program that was developed with input from experts in the field of occupational health and safety that focuses on educating employees about hydration along with nutrition and proper sleep before working in hotter temperatures. We have morning meetings with drivers all year round, reminding them of forecasted temperatures and encouraging them to be aware of their own health conditions. In the summer, in addition to providing water and ice for employees, we provide regular heat illness and injury prevention training to all operations managers and drivers.
UPS also offers a program called the “Comprehensive Health and Safety Process” (CHSP), meant as a forum for workers and management to discuss health and safety issues. UPS claims it has 3,200 CHSP committees operating across the U.S., but it’s unclear how effective this has been. While educational programs and morning meetings are certainly a good start, it seems like a weak response to what is becoming an increasingly dangerous situation for workers.
Of course, the heat is bad enough. Combined with the massive upswing in e-commerce and the gigantic amount of packages to be delivered every day, delivery drivers are forced to choose between pushing their physical safety to make on-time deliveries, or working at a sustainable pace and being forced to sacrifice their off hours. Many drivers stay on the clock until 10 p.m. or later due to the amount of deliveries they’re forced to make.
For an outside perspective on the issue, I went to the outlet that first made me aware of the situation: Jorts the Cat, the furry orange feline face of pro-labor Twitter who rose to prominence after an “Am I the Asshole?” on Reddit went viral. Jorts has been bringing awareness to the plight of UPS drivers on Twitter, sharing photos from delivery drivers showing triple-digit temperatures in their trucks. Jorts had a lot to say to Jalopnik on the issue.
“Our [office] air conditioning was weak (not even fully broken) for like two days, and everyone was miserable. I was so shocked when I learned many package delivery vehicles don’t have air conditioning or even fans. Yet UPS is working to install cameras to surveil workers but not installing air conditioning? Bonkers!!”
Jorts continues: “People like farm workers, warehouse workers and delivery workers are literally human shields against the worst parts of the climate crisis. They’re out working in these deadly conditions to make sure the rest of us have our basic needs. So many bosses are focused more on profits than on keeping their workers healthy and alive.”
UPS is unusual in the package-delivery industry; most competitors have air-conditioned delivery vehicles. Retrofitting the familiar company-owned brown trucks with A/C would be time-consuming and expensive, but it’s something UPS employees and their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Package Division, have been requesting for years.
“UPS executives sit inside their air-conditioned, C-suite offices all day while UPS Teamsters endure some of the most intense weather conditions imaginable,” Teamsters General President Sean M. O’Brien said in a statement provided to Jalopnik. “This corporation needs to own up for what it is or is not doing to protect these workers. The Teamsters aren’t asking for answers — we’re demanding them.”
The Teamsters Package Division has the largest collective-bargaining agreement in the country with over 350,000 workers covered. This is a significant portion of the Teamsters overall 1.2 million members. The union’s current contract with UPS expires in July 2023, with negotiations on a new contract set to happen soon.
The Teamsters’ push for accountability from UPS goes beyond air-conditioned trucks. UPS union representatives sent Jalopnik a list of changes they want UPS to enact to keep employees safe. Quoting directly from the Teamsters:
- UPS must provide fans in every truck. Currently, a Teamster driver has to request one and endure a process before a fan is installed in their truck. There’s no reason this multibillion-dollar shipping giant can’t provide a fan in every truck.
- Every UPS center should have a functioning ice machine. Every driver should be able to have a cup or container full of ice before going out on their routes on hot days.
- Water for all drivers to be provided by the company. When temperatures soar above 90 degrees, every driver should be provided with bottles of water, including electrolyte-enhanced water during heat advisories.
- Create more full-time package driver positions and allow for more rest breaks on hot days. During a heat wave, the company should not be loading drivers up with more stops and longer routes. More jobs will mean lighter routes on hot days and more time for drivers to rest and rehydrate.
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) like cool neck towels and uniform materials with higher air and vapor permeability.
- Develop an acclimatization schedule for employees. New employees and those returning from an extended absence need to be acclimatized to the changing weather pattern.
- Communicate to drivers about locations along their route where they can seek shade and public air-conditioned spaces. UPS needs to give drivers the time and the locations that allow them to recover from heat-related symptoms.
The conditions that UPS drivers face in the summer heat are bad enough on their own. The situation seems even worse when you consider how UPS is doing as a business — posting a Q1 2022 profit of $3.3 billion dollars while ignoring drivers’ pleas for air conditioning. The company has spent many millions of dollars retrofitting its trucks — with driver-monitoring systems to measure productivity, including in-cabin cameras and sophisticated telemetry to detect and penalize drivers who reverse their trucks, a practice the company deems inefficient.
(Of note: while UPS drivers are directly employed by the company, many FedEx and Amazon drivers are contract workers.)
“The Teamsters will not stand by and allow a multibillion-dollar employer to force our members into extreme heat without the protection they need to avoid heat-related illness and death,” O’Brien’s statement continues. “The Teamsters demand UPS take these actions right now to protect workers. By refusing to implement these safety measures, the company is literally sending drivers out to die in the heat. UPS is on notice.”