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Delivery drivers are forced to confront the heat wave head on

A UPS delivery truck drives through an intersection in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images
A UPS delivery truck drives through an intersection in San Francisco.

Who are they? Delivery drivers all across America who bring your Amazon, UPS and FedEx packages to your front doorstep.

  • In 2021, it was reported that Amazon was employing over 1 million people in the United States, fulfilling a bevy of roles for the e-commerce giant.
  • Amazon, as well as FedEx and DHL, hire private subcontractors to handle their package deliveries – in many cases separating them from the actual process.
  • What's the big deal? As several parts of the U.S. are struggling to cope with historically high temperatures, these package delivery drivers are feeling the heat.

  • NPR's Danielle Kaye reported that at least eight UPS drivers were hospitalized for heat-related illness last summer, and dozens more have reported heat stress in recent years, according to federal data on work injuries.
  • Air conditioning in vans can be unreliable and prone to breaking, and repairs can be subjected to a long and drawn-out process due to Amazon's use of third-party repair companies.
  • The poor working conditions have driven one of the small businesses who make up Amazon's delivery network to organize and form a union – they feel they have been retaliated against by Amazon after having their contract terminated.
  • The biggest delivery companies aren't legally required to safeguard most of their drivers from the heat. There are no federal heat safety rules for workers. 
  • What are people saying? Kaye spoke to workers on the ground to hear about their experiences working in these conditions.

    Viviana Gonzales, a UPS driver for nearly a decade, who does not have a functioning air conditioner in her truck, and has reported temperatures of up to 150 degrees:

    We don't have AC inside the trucks. The fans are just throwing hot air, so all it does is irritate my eyes.

    I already probably drank more than a gallon of water, no kidding. Like literally, a whole gallon of water since I started work [five hours ago]

    Renica Turner, who works for an Amazon subcontractor called Battle Tested Strategies, or BTS, and worked last year on a 111 degree day:

    I didn't feel right. My body was tingling, as if I was going to pass out.

    And when she called in about her symptoms, she only received a 20 minute break:

    They never sent no one out to help me with the rest of the route. I had to deliver the rest of that, feeling woozy, feeling numb, and just really overwhelmed.

    Johnathon Ervin, who owns BTS, and says they were one of Amazon's top performing subcontractors that recently had their contract terminated:

    The issue was obviously the drivers, and their complaints, and their hurtling towards unionization due to their treatment.

    And on how the lengthy repair process for vans affects his employees:

    It's difficult for them. It's insane that we're forced to drive these vehicles.

    So, what now?

  • An Amazon spokesperson claimed that BTS' contract being terminated was not related to their employees forming a union; they also claimed that any delivery van without working AC is grounded – and it's up to the subcontractor to get vans fixed. 
  • In June, UPS reached a tentative heat safety agreement with the Teamsters union, which represents 340,000 UPS workers. 
  • Starting in January, the company will install air conditioning in new delivery trucks. It'll also add new heat shields and fans. In the meantime, the company says workers get cooling gear.
  • "It's almost like a touchdown. We're almost there," said Gonzales, though she, and many others, will continue laboring in this heat wave.
  • Learn more:

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  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Danielle Kaye
    Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.