Home U.S. News ‘We’re going to see workers die’: extreme heat is key issue in UPS contract talks

‘We’re going to see workers die’: extreme heat is key issue in UPS contract talks

‘We’re going to see workers die’: extreme heat is key issue in UPS contract talks

As a UPS delivery driver in Dallas, Texas, Seth Pacic is intimately familiar with the dangers of extreme heat. After a long day’s work through record-breaking temperatures in summer 2011, he found himself dry heaving in the parking lot, incapable of driving home until he spent an hour and a half in the air-conditioned office.

“It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my entire life,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I fully recovered for a couple of weeks.”

For some, the heat has had even more serious consequences. Last June, Pacic’s friend and coworker had a heat stroke while driving home from work; he is still recuperating, Pacic said. That same summer, 24-year-old UPS driver Esteban Chavez collapsed and died in California as temperatures soared into the high 90s; his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit and later settled with UPS. And the year before that, Jose Cruz Rodriguez Jr, 23, died of a heatstroke while driving a UPS truck in Waco, Texas.

It’s a widespread issue. At least 143 UPS employees were hospitalized for heat injuries between 2015 and 2022, according to the company’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration records obtained by the Washington Post. As the climate crisis pushes up temperatures, the problem could get even worse.

At the state level, only California, Oregon and Washington require heat breaks for all outdoor laborers, and during a record-breaking heatwave last month, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, eliminated municipalities’ ability to mandate water and shade breaks for laborers.

This summer, amid record-shattering heat across the US, Pacic and some 340,000 other unionized UPS workers have made heat a central issue of their ongoing contract negotiations with their employer.

On 16 June, UPS’s 340,000 Teamsters union members said if their demands for improved working conditions – including heat protections – are not included in UPS’s new five-year contract, they will be prepared to hold one of the largest single-employer strikes in US history starting on 1 August.

Teamsters employed by UPS hold a rally outside a UPS facility in Los Angeles on 19 July.
Teamsters employed by UPS hold a rally outside a UPS facility in Los Angeles on 19 July. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

This week, UPS agreed to resume bargaining with the Teamsters, following a collapse of negotiations earlier this month.

The union notched a major win last month, when the company tentatively agreed to equip all new delivery trucks in its 94,000-vehicle fleet with air conditioners starting in 2024, and also install new heat shields and fans.

The victory showed how worker organization can be a key tool for climate justice, said Mijin Cha, an urban and environmental policy professor at Occidental College who studies labor and climate issues.

“We’re seeing a fundamental reshaping of what we consider ‘occupational safety,’” said Cha. “In the extreme heat, any kind of work outside is dangerous … and as more workers organize, they’ll be better able, hopefully, to stay safe.”

Driving for UPS is a grueling job in any season, said Matt Leichenger, who works in Brooklyn, New York. On a typical day, he makes up to 150 stops to deliver hundreds of packages, often having to walk long distances and climb up multiple flights of stairs while carrying large items such as mattresses.

In the summer, things get even harder. Temperatures in the back of the truck can top 130F (54.4C) as the dark brown steel radiates heat “like an oven”, he said. Because loads are not always well organized, workers must root through piles of boxes that can weigh up to 150lb each.

“There are days where you step out of the back of the truck into 95F weather and you feel like you’ve entered blissful, perfect temperatures, but in reality, you’ve just escaped hell,” said Leichenger, who helped organize a rally outside the UPS’s Foster Avenue warehouse in Brooklyn last summer demanding that the company provide air-conditioned trucks.

Jim Mayer, a spokesperson for UPS, said the company has taken steps to protect workers from heat this summer, including distributing cooling sleeves and hats and installing fans in some of their delivery vehicles.

“The health and safety of our employees is our highest priority,” he said.

He also said employees are encouraged to stop working when they’re feeling the effects of the heat.

“Our policy is simple: stop work, contact your manager, and when in doubt, call emergency services/911,” he said.

Leichenger said workers feel pressure to move quickly. UPS measures efficiency with surveillance cameras and sensors inside trucks, and uses a computer program to calculate how long a route should take.

Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate with the nonprofit Public Citizen, said surveillance can also make workers feel less comfortable taking bathroom breaks, causing them to drink less water.

“If you add dehydration to heat stress, that’s something that can make you ill very, very quickly,” she said.

It’s not just UPS workers who are suffering amid the heat. A Texas United States Postal Service driver last month died of heat exposure amid triple-digit temperatures.

Right now, dozens of striking Amazon drivers in California are also demanding better heat protections.

“The back of the truck is basically hell,” Rajpal Singh, a striking Amazon delivery worker in Palmdale, California, said. “I’ve been back there to the point where I’ve actually seen spots and started feeling like I was about to pass out.”

(Eileen Hards, an Amazon spokesperson, said that the striking laborers work for a third party company called Battle Tested Strategies, with which Amazon terminated its contract last month; the workers said that the company only ended the contract after they formed a union, prompting Teamsters across the country to picket in solidarity.)

Because UPS is such a large employer, new official heat protections could spur change across the logistics sector.

“Amazon workers, FedEx workers, postal workers are all dealing with similar issues,” he said. “I’m proud of Teamsters for starting to trailblaze.”

The new UPS contract language on heat could inspire other workers to push for climate-related protections in their contracts. But the tentative agreement won’t be enacted until a final contract agreement is signed.

Even when that happens, the language will leave something to be desired, according to Seth Pacic, the Dallas-based UPS driver. UPS agreed to install ACs in every car purchased after 1 January 2024, dispatching new vehicles to the hottest parts of the country first. But it could still be years before all delivery drivers have access to air conditioned trucks, he said.

“Until then, I think we’re still going to see workers die,” Pacic said.

Before they reach a final agreement, the UPS union is still holding out for other protections like increased wages, the elimination of a two-tiered employment system, and an end to harassment from managers. These protections could provide additional protection from the heat, Pacic said.

Workers who are free from harassment will be more likely to take breaks. And higher wages could ensure workers don’t take second jobs which can increase their heat exposure, and help them to afford equipment like UV cooling sleeves, ice pouches, coolers and pricey electrolyte drinks.

Experts say these provisions are all the more necessary in the absence of strong governmental heat protections.

Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2021 said it would publish a heat standard to protect workers from high temperatures, but Juley Fulcher, the safety advocate, said it could be years before it’s completed – and that the agency has not initiated an interim heat standard.

Actions like Texas governor Abbott seeking to eliminate water and shade breaks showed what workers are facing, said Cha, the urban and environmental policy professor.

“It’s part of a larger war on workers. With the dominance of capital in our system, any kind of concession toward workers is seen as a loss – even something as simple and necessary as water breaks,” she said. “The only challenge to capital is labor … so the more workers are able to organize, the better.”

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