The gargantuan UPS Worldport is the largest automated packaging sorting facility in the world. Covering 5.2 square meters in Louisville, Kentucky, with 70 aircraft docks and 155 miles of conveyor belts, the site is larger than the Mall of America, employs approximately 11,000 workers and is capable of processing 115 packages per second.
But for all its impressive statistics, working conditions at UPS Worldport have recently come under intense scrutiny following a recent workplace suicide of a pregnant worker, with allegations by workers that she had recently fired.
No one can ever know the real reason why someone commits suicide. Workplace suicides in the United States have increased dramatically in recent years and reached an all-time high in 2019, the latest year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data. The worker’s death, which occurred Oct. 5, is being investigated by Louisville Metro Police.
In a statement, Teamsters Local 89, the union representing UPS package handlers, drivers and other base workers in Louisville, said: “While we do not know the cause of this heartbreaking decision, our local union mourn this terrible loss. To everyone affected, our thoughts are with you as you grieve.
After the death was announced, UPS Worldport workers spoke to the Guardian about conditions at the site on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals for speaking to the media. They claim intense productivity and quota pressures on workers, common injuries on the job, an unsanitary environment, worn-out equipment and understaffing in sections that weigh heavily on staff.
“Working conditions are dire,” said a UPS worker who has been on the site for a year. “She was pregnant, I believe she was in her second trimester, and she was fired because she fell asleep at work and instead of being fired, because every time someone is fired, the manager firing her has to drive her into the property and this manager did not do that. She said she had to pull herself together in the bathroom and he didn’t make sure she got out of the bathroom, so she was given free rein at the property.
She was found dead at the facility later that evening.
The company declined to comment on details of the case. “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our employee and send our condolences to her family and friends. We do not share personal employment and health information with our employees, although you are aware that there are a number of inaccurate social media posts about this tragedy.
A worker who spoke to the Guardian said he was not surprised something like this happened at the facility. They said workers at the site were under immense pressure, with threats of being fired for being late, for going to the toilet one too many times, all under constant scrutiny and scrutiny. Worker is recovering from having his hand broken by heavy packages. They said the loss of nails, broken fingers and bruised toes from heavy parcel loads are common occurrences that workers have to deal with.
“We are constantly watched and scrutinized and nothing we do is ever good enough,” they added. “I’ve already walked out of the building in tears because I’m so physically and mentally exhausted.”
A second UPS Worldport worker highlighted the need for better mental health services for workers, especially in grueling work environments like at UPS.
“A lot of people say the younger generation seems unable to hold down a job or is lazy or doesn’t want to work. But the fact is that many of us deploy every ounce of our mental energy to go to work every day and deal with the working conditions we have been put in,” they said. “If workers are not in a good mental state, they cannot work, and if they are forced to continue working in these conditions, things like this will continue to happen.”
Another worker argued that UPS Worldport, as Louisville’s largest employer, has a lot of power over workers because it offers the highest paying opportunity for entry-level work and many workers are initially hired part-time, with benefits such as health care coverage not kicked in for months in their jobs.
“They’re just pulling people off the streets just so they’re potentially abused by the supervisors unless you really put your foot down and say no I can’t do that but some people don’t have don’t have that power because they fear they’re going to get fired. They don’t realize they have the power to defend themselves,” the worker said.
Another worker said management is constantly chasing workers to increase productivity, despite already managing heavy workloads without enough staff.
“Supervisors are constantly blaming employees for not doing enough when most of us are already performing the best we can two to four parcel lanes. Some people can’t handle it and there’s nothing wrong with that, but UPS does it badly,” they said.
A fifth UPS Worldport worker claimed supervisors fired or overlooked issues raised by workers and said poor working conditions were compounded by the physical demands of the job, understaffing and difficult work environment .
“I blow my nose sometimes and what comes out is brown and black from dust not being cleaned in there,” they said. “The machines are old. Things fall on people. Things always break like guardrails, lock belts have holes.
They also said that there was no air conditioning in the building, which made the heat unbearable in the summer months, and that they had experienced mental health issues and refusals of accommodation requested.
“People at UPS don’t feel like they have any power over their lives or the ability to support themselves and that with the demands, physical and emotional, of working in a place with no responsibilities, fortunately i have mental health care but there are other people who live with conditions like mine who are at greater risk of suicide and in working conditions like this it can only ‘exacerbate this,” they added. “I wish UPS took better care of its employees and treated them like human beings instead of robots shuffling packages all night at huge volumes.”
UPS denied complaints of understaffing, said the facility was maintained and cleaned regularly, and that all employees received mental health resources and counseling. They didn’t comment on the heat or complain about productivity pressures and quotas or the lack of breaks.
A spokesperson added in an email: “The health and safety of our employees is our first priority, and Worldport has best-in-class safety standards. In addition to our dedicated health and safety and occupational health teams, we also have a dedicated employee-led health and safety team through our comprehensive health and safety process (CHSP) . The CHSP provides our employees with a formal means to share their concerns, ask questions and play an active role in resolving their concerns about work practices. This is a very collaborative process between our front line employees and management. »