When Esteban Chavez collapsed after making his last package delivery for the day in Pasadena, California on June 25, it was another twenty minutes before someone discovered him and called for emergency help. He died soon afterward. Esteban was 24 years old and had been working at United Parcel Service (UPS) for four years. It was his second day back to work after recovering from a shoulder injury.
Esteban went to work that day not expecting to die on the job. Temperatures, however, soared into the upper nineties in Pasadena, and UPS package delivery cars do not have air conditioning. “It hurts, it’s a pain that’s never gonna go away. And that’s something I wish on nobody, having the experience of losing your child,” his father Esteban, Sr. told the local ABC news affiliate. While the Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office hasn’t released an official cause of death, Esteban’s family believes with good reason that it is directly related to high temperatures and dehydration. “I’m thinking it’s heatstroke, but that’s just me,” Esteban’s aunt, Gloria Chavez, told ABC. Esteban’s father hopes that his son’s death “could bring awareness to his line of work, to the other drivers out there, just making sure you’re staying hydrated.”
Less than two weeks later in Scottsdale, Arizona the security camera of a homeowner captured a UPS driver collapsing on his front porch in 113-degree heat. Business Insider reported:
The homeowner, Brian Enriquez, captured the incident on video via his Ring doorbell on Thursday. He told local news that by the time he saw the video of the delivery man it was too late to provide any help, but he checked in with the company and reported the incident to local police for a welfare check.
The video shows the UPS driver struggling to walk to the customer’s front door while delivering an envelope. The driver then collapses in front of the door after he sets down the delivery, eventually falling onto his back. After a few moments, the delivery man stands up, rings the doorbell, and slowly walks back to his vehicle.
There has been a longstanding awareness about the dangers of heat in the workplace whether it be in vast agricultural fields, underfunded public schools, construction and road work, warehouses and factories, and for package delivery drivers. Climate change has accelerated the dangers for these workers.
When a local ABC News affiliate was able to track down the driver who collapsed on the Scottsdale porch—he was interviewed anonymously—and he told reporters:
(The) fact of the matter is that no amount of training can prepare your body for 160 degrees, 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week,” says one UPS driver who spoke with ABC15 anonymously, saying the way they’re treated is inhumane.
It’s not just him. The driver described apocalyptic conditions, “Every week drivers are dropping like flies due to heat conditions and UPS is killing drivers because of this.”
His problems don’t stop at the end of the long workday:
There’s been several times where I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, cramping up, my legs cramping, my hand is cramping. I’m telling my wife I can’t sleep because I’m having these issues and I end up having to call out the next day because it’s clearly not safe for me to come back to work. And UPS will reprimand me.
UPS drivers and Teamsters’ spouses took to social media to highlight the lack of air conditioning, which most people found shocking. UPS driver Aiden Mann’s Tik-Tok post has garnered over five million views, while Theresa Klenk’s change.org petition demanding air conditioning for all UPS drivers has been signed by over 1.3 million people. Klenk and her UPS driver husband were featured in an NBC News expose of UPS three years ago about the risk for heat-related illness and death on the job.
Surveillance over safety
2022 is potentially the deadliest year for UPS package car drivers since 2019, when NBC did a major expose of heat-related illness. According to the report:
UPS does not air-condition most of those familiar brown trucks or many of its loading facilities. On a long hot day of deliveries, the temperature in the cargo area of a truck can soar to 140 degrees and higher. UPS drivers have recorded temperatures as high as 152 degrees, according to photos and video provided to NBC News.
Between the heat and the surge in shipping from the pandemic, drivers who spoke to NBC News said conditions are getting worse.
At least 107 UPS workers in 23 states have been hospitalized for heat illnesses since 2015, according to state and federal worker-safety data and hundreds of pages of documents obtained by NBC News through freedom-of-information requests…. Yet, UPS has no plans to air-condition its delivery fleet, and drivers said they feel uncomfortable complaining at a company that offers one of the nation’s best paying jobs for workers without college degrees.
News of Esteban Chavez’s death quickly spread through unofficial Teamster and UPS-related social media sites and major media outlets. UPS. however. has yet to acknowledge Chavez’s death on any of its social media platforms. UPS CEO Carol Tomé, who has struck a more friendly, open public face in sharp contrast to her predecessors, has posted nothing on her personal Twitter feed, nor has anything been posted on the UPS Newsroom.
UPS is the largest private-sector, unionized employer in the United States. The Teamsters represent the tractor-trailer and delivery drivers and warehouse workers, who load and unload load trucks and sort packages—across the country. In an official statement released on the official Teamster Facebook page, Teamster General President Sean O’Brien declared:
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. 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. The Teamsters will confront the company aggressively on this issue as the heat rages now, and as we head into bargaining for the 2023 contract.
Unfortunately, the demand to add air conditioning to package cars is missing from O’Brien’s demands. This is a strange and disappointing omission, especially given his promise to transform the Teamsters into a more militant and bold union. However, one of the few local Teamster unions to take up this demand is New York Local 804 led by Vincent Perrone. In a letter to his membership released on July 9, Perrone wrote,
Brothers and Sisters, last week UPS driver and Teamster Esteban Chavez died of heatstroke while delivering packages in California. His death could have been prevented. UPS has refused to install air conditioning in its trucks for years for one simple reason: to save money. UPS makes the conscious decision every summer to allow workers to suffer and die from heat exhaustion rather than spend money on worker safety. This is an outrage, and it is time we demand an end to it!
UPS is far more interested in installing cameras in their package cars to monitor already over-surveilled drivers than installing air conditioning. It began installing Lytx DriveCams in four UPS package centers in Oklahoma and Texas two years ago. Surveillance cameras inside package cars spread across the country under the previous Teamsters’ union leadership of James P. Hoffa. UPS tries to sell cameras as a new safety feature, but this is laughable given its reputation as one of the most punitive employers in the United States, which has led to two workplace massacres during the past decade.
Vincent Perrone called for demonstrations on the morning of July 28 at every UPS building in Local 804’s jurisdiction demanding that cameras be removed and that UPS “commit to installing air conditioning in every truck.” Meanwhile, the Teamsters Package Division has called for a week of action beginning August 1 coinciding with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1997 UPS strike to launch a year-long contract campaign for the 2023 contract. This also presents an opportunity to demand nationwide action on air conditioning for delivery drivers now.
Sweltering out of sight
UPS presents itself as a “can do” company, a great innovator in technology in the tracking and movement of packages on a global scale. “Big Brown,” as it was known for many years, has put forward a green image with the introduction of alternative fuels and electric vehicles. Yet, it has consistently opposed the introduction of such latter twentieth-century technology as air conditioning in package cars, something first offered as an option in cars by General Motors and Packard in the early 1950s. Today, less than one percent of passenger cars don’t have air conditioning.
The current battle over air conditioning is a continuation of a long-standing struggle between UPS and its workers over workplace safety. Most notoriously, in the 1990s, UPS and a cabal of Corporate America’s worst workplace safety violators attempted to destroy the effectiveness of OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Even the distinctive brown shorts worn by UPS drivers today required a battle with UPS management, who for years demanded drivers and warehouse workers wear long pants in the sweltering heat.
While package drivers have received the bulk of attention from the media—they are the public face of the company—there is a hidden army of mostly part-timers who labor away in huge distribution warehouses (known as “hubs”) across the country. These dark, flat-roofed buildings bake like ovens in the warmer weather. The working conditions of UPS workers have received less attention from the media in sharp contrast to the spurt of media attention on Amazon’s warehouse workers last year.
Stephen Michaels, a Marine Corps combat veteran and a worker at UPS’s enormous Chicago Area Consolidated Hub (CACH) located southwest of Chicago, collapsed and died while leaving work on July 21, 2011. An anonymous letter to Socialist Worker newspaper at the time reported,
Stephen requested to leave work early because he wasn’t feeling well, but his request was denied. The heat index in the Chicago area was over 109 degrees. Inside the trailers, where many of us work, it was much hotter. Two days before Stephen’s death, another worker passed out in a trailer. This was one of many personal accounts of workers succumbing to the heat.
Incidents like this are often kept hidden from public view and rarely make it into the mainstream media. “If these members had air conditioning not only in the cars but in the warehouses, then you wouldn’t hear about losing a life or passing out because of the heat,” said Richard Hooker, Jr., the principal officer of Philadelphia Teamsters Local 623, told Fox Weather. Hooker’s local will also be organizing demonstrations outside UPS hubs in the coming weeks.
Whether the life and health of UPS workers can wait for next year’s contract negotiation is debatable. But a growing number of UPS workers—even many who at one time thought that demanding air conditioning was unrealistic or accepted suffering through the heat was part of the job—are changing their minds. They want action from their union. The last time the Teamsters struck national over safety was in February 1994 under Ron Carey. While not as well-known as the 1997 strike, it does provide one example of what could be done today.
Featured Image Credit: Flickr, permission by Creative Commons.”>Photo by Susan Sermoneta; modified by Tempest.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer.