Working At UPS

I’ve been wanting to write about my experience at UPS for a while now.  I just haven’t gotten around to it.  Why?  Because I’m dog tired exhausted that’s why.

Seriously, UPS is the hardest physical job I’ve ever done.  It’s probably not as hard as many other jobs, or even as hard as some people in third world countries work, but for me, and many others I work with, UPS is very hard work.

I work as a sorter at UPS.  Basically, it’s a job where I have packages of all sizes, and up to 70 pounds, coming at me at a rate of 1200 or more packages an hour.  As such, I’m supposed to sort these packages at at least 1200 an hour.  The average weight of a package is probably somewhere around 25 lbs.  Now that probably doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re there for 4 or more hours a day, and you’re on your 4800th package, even the light packages can start to seem like they’re heavier than what they ought to be.

So the people in the unload, unload semi trailers – some long, some short – as fast as they possibly can (Because at UPS, it’s all about speed and money, not about the person or their safety as much as they’d like to claim it is.  One observation I made, was that what you learned in the “classroom” didn’t seem to apply all that much out on the floor, especially during peak season.  Also, the supervisors seem inconsistent in what rules and regulations they apply.).  These packages get placed on an “extendo,” which is just an extendable conveyor belt that goes the length of the trailer (most of the time), and then they travel to us sorters where we are waiting at a belt that is perpendicular to the extendo belt.  So as a sorter, things look like an upside down T.  These packages then hit a diverter so that they come to you and not to the next guy down the line, you pick up the packages, and place them on one of 6 belts with a total of 12 colors on them (meaning if you don’t get a certain package all the way up against the side of belt on the “side pan” it’s not going to go to the right place.  If this happens, it’s a mis-sort and it’ll most likely come back to your sort aisle making more work for everybody.  It’s not a big deal though, it happens so often because everything is so fast paced that if you have a mis-sort or 9, you just deal with it later).  These belts are perpendicular to you, so you always have to pivot to put the packages on the belts.  3 belts are about waist level with you and flat, and 3 belts are above those.  I’m about 5’7″ tall, and the three upper belts (called transverses) are at about eye level with me.  Those upper belts have a steep incline too.  If the belt is worn down, packages will slide off.  If you place a package on the belt a little bit the wrong way, it may roll, and roll fast, and roll hard.  People could get seriously injured by a “roller.”  Just last week I got conked in the head with about a 10 lb. box from the upper belt.  It made me dizzy and gave me a headache for the rest of the day.

Sort aisleThis picture, found on a google image search (belongs to Matt Crowell) is similar to what the aisle that I work on looks like.  We don’t have a big yellow bar on the left though, ours is all open and the belts that do run are higher up, and on the right, where the whitish-grayish bar is, that is about where our “upper transverses (belts)” are.  Someone must have snuck in a cell-phone to take this picture, because except for supervisors, hourly employees (for the most part) aren’t allowed cell phones in the building.

So anyway, there’s the description of the the work area, so why is it so bad to work there?  Mostly, because it is so fast paced, the labor can often be described as “brutal,” and it takes a toll on your body.  There are other reasons as well, but I’ll just mention some.  The sorters often have to handle the boxes two or three times, unlike the unloaders or the loaders.  Often times, our belts will shut off and we have to “stack down” our boxes, all the while trying to keep pace with the unloaders who quite often go way faster than the 1200 per hour.  At UPS, getting those trucks unloaded is the most important thing it seems.  Once the packages are in the building, we can deal with them how we need to, but they need to get off the truck first.  So the supervisors are constantly pushing the unloaders to unload as fast as they can (often without regard to the safe work methods we were taught in the classroom), and they hammer the sorters if we have to stop the unloaders because we can’t keep up.  Most of the time we can as long as we can see the labels on the boxes and the belts are running, but no matter how fast the unloaders unload, I can only sort as fast as the belts move.  So when we stack down, at some point, we have to pick those boxes back up (now from feet level instead of waist level) and put them on the belts.  When this gets really bad (and it does; everyday) we just say that we’re building our igloo (because quite literally, you place boxes all around you to the point that you box yourself in until the flow starts going again).

Sometimes, we get “straight shots.”  These are the same type of packages in a large quantity.  Boxes of paper are the worst.  Usually, they’re 35-40 lbs, they go the upper belts, and there are just enough of them right in a row to make your arms and shoulders feel like they’re going to fall off.  The repetitive nature of straight shots, really no matter how much they weigh, is rough on your body.

This brings me to another reason working at UPS stinks.  The wear and tear on your body.  I have never worked a job where I am this sore ALL the time.  With the up, down, pivot, lift, etc., the amount of calories you burn, the repetitive nature of the job, I am always sore.  My neck hurts, my shoulders hurt, my biceps hurt, my forearms and wrists hurts, my thighs ache, my hamstrings hurt, I got blisters on my toes (only in my first two weeks though), the joints of my fingers hurt (from grabbing boxes all day), I get headaches more often (from working like a dog and only getting a 10 minute break to try to cram down as much food as you can), my back is sore, and I’m simply exhausted after I’m done there.  Some of my co-workers say the same thing, so I’m just not whining because I’m a wimp.  There are people who have been working there for years and they still say that they’re sore.

Have I gotten used to the work?  Yes.  I am definitely stronger and have more muscular endurance than when I first started, but the work is still the same everyday, which means that it kicks your butt!  I’ve been working there for 3 months now, Monday-Friday, and I’m still sore and in pain every day, including the weekends that I’m not working.  UPS is a fast-paced, physical, hard work environment.  It’s hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, loud, dirty, and not fun.  It’s a paycheck.  Literally, that is all it is.  UPS will claim benefits will draw people in, but at least under our current union contract, those don’t start until you’ve been there for 1 year.  You don’t get any paid vacation time until after 1 year.  Basically, you have to be at UPS for at least a year before you can even begin to say that it’s a “good” job.  Problem is, most people don’t stay that long.  Why?  Because the work is brutal, and some of the supervisors are too.  Look, bottom line is, UPS cares about their reputation and their money, not you.  You are a working, expendable grunt to them.  They are hiring nearly every week because the turnover rate is so high.  Of course, UPS doesn’t mind.  They don’t have to pay benefits to people who don’t

I came to UPS for the paycheck.  I needed to make at least $100 a week to be able to pay for my seminary class.  I found out they have tuition assistance and that draws in a lot of students.  However, don’t plan on getting it right away.  Unless you go to a UPS partner school where they pay the money up front, you have to get reimbursed at the end of the semester and have all the associated paperwork.  But, this process can take 2-6 weeks, and you have to be an employee there to get reimbursed.  So, unless you plan on staying at UPS more than semester, don’t expect to get reimbursed.  I’m not getting reimbursed most likely.  Why is that Jeremy?  Well, because I have found another, better job.  I don’t start this job until January, but if the reimbursement process takes that long, then I won’t get the money anyway.  Now granted, I didn’t start working at UPS because tuition assistance was foremost in my mind; the paycheck was, but potentially getting back $1100 would be nice for sure.  I thought I’d be at UPS longer than what I am going to be when I started, but after about 3 weeks, I started looking for other jobs.  I didn’t look seriously, but one job came up that I just had to apply for.  I ended up getting it.  Overall, it will be a much better job for me than UPS ever was, but I just think it’s sad that I won’t be getting my tuition reimbursement when that is one thing that draws students to UPS.  I think that UPS knows this however.  They know that many students will only stay for one semester.  They draw them in with a tuition assistance program, and then, at the end of fall, they don’t process the paper work until the middle of January, and by that time, the student has left UPS for whatever reason, and oh, UPS doesn’t have to pay the tuition reimbursement because student is not a current employee anymore.

Seriously, on the outside, UPS may seem like a good company to work for, but having only been there 3 months, I’ve seen and heard how UPS cuts corners and deceives (especially its union employees).  They will protect their reputation and their dollar first and foremost, at almost any cost to their employees.  However, I suppose if you’re able to stay on for at least a year, get some seniority under your belt, and are able to get the benefits, it may not be that bad of a job, but it will still be brutally hard work.  The pay may be decent, but I just don’t think that it compensates for the wear and tear on your body.

So, I am not staying at UPS, and I am SO happy about it.  In my new job, the physical work won’t be as brutal, there are some different benefits that are more applicable to me (and I don’t have to wait a year to get them), my boss(es) actually care about me as a person, the environment is much better to work in (both people wise and building wise), and the hours better fit my schedule.

Is UPS really so horrible?  Well, yes, it is.  I could list some good things to say about UPS, as there are a few, but compared to other jobs that are out there, and especially compared to what dedicating 4 years of your life to a college degree can get you, there are much better life options out there than UPS.  UPS, like any other major company, has a great propaganda machine of how great it is to work for them, but the reality is, it is not great and unless you’d be one of the very fortunate few to be lucky enough to have a decent position within the company, UPS is not a great company to work for.

Oh, and one other note too.  Whether you’re shipping UPS or some other company, please, please, please pack your items very well.  Packages get kicked, thrown, stomped on, and somewhat abused at UPS (though I’d say 90% are just fine), and when UPS employees are working like dogs, it’s like one of my co-workers said, “People have to pack their stuff good because I work too hard with not enough pay to care.  Caring is above my pay grade.”  Yep, that about sums it up.  Another UPS employee put it this way, “UPS employees put 8 hours worth of work into a 4 hour day.”  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Jeremy Shunk