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Pretty sure this FedEx job will kill me

Scenes from the social crisis

Conditions at FedEx have always been brutal, but as Malli Nath writes, climate change is making a bad situation more dangerous.

There’s a crisis at FedEx. As our Houston contact Malli Nath put it a few days ago: “The heart of FedEx just got liquidated for parts.” The company is merging FedEx Ground with FedEx Express—and “consolidating” FedEx Freight—but that really entails mass layoffs of drivers, and the conversion of company jobs with benefits to poorly compensated “independent contractor” positions. As Nath puts it, the affected people are “freaking out.”

“Fedex Express drivers are talking about losing their jobs like they are losing family, because the Express part was the heart of Federal Express…. This was the way they met their neighbors. It is heartbreaking to see people who have worked more than thirty years providing for their communities, who did meaningful work yesterday, and who are now suddenly superfluous. The people behind the counter are also devastated. … It never felt like this before.”

Nath themself works in a FedEx warehouse, and sent us the following report about the work situation inside.

This article is the first in an occasional series that Tempest is calling “Scenes from the social crisis.” See the end of the article for more information.

I just survived the tornado, the power outage, and the aftermath that others in Houston, TX, are going through. But in addition to that, I worked tirelessly in a FedEx sortation facility that was operating on generators alone. And every time something happened, or a light went out, or the conveyor belt sputtered, I was pretty sure that this was going to be the end of me. I don’t say this lightly. I am good at my job and I like most of my coworkers and almost none of my managers. But FedEx’s central role in the logistics operations of retail and residential deliveries means that when the machines don’t work because the weather is bad or a pandemic happens—the humans in the building are forced to make up for it.

What that realistically means, in case you don’t know, is that boxes have to be moved no matter what if FedEx is to turn a profit. So heavy objects that would routinely be carried by conveyor belt are manually moved down rollers or more likely carried by human beings or ill-designed Powered Industrial Transport or, dear God, those awful carts. FedEx is efficient and fast when everything works. But when the power goes down, everyone’s anxiety goes up because things are not just inefficient, they are downright deadly.

See, FedEx prides itself on speed and efficiency. Every package handler is shown the way to move boxes in and out of vehicles at the pace required by the machines. We use machines to scan packages and print labels that all work on networked servers. Profit depends on the speed of the electronic devices, the workings of the printer, the utility of the walkie-talkie, the working of the lights and fans. In ideal conditions FedEx tells you that the job is dangerous and requires vigilance.

A pile of boxes and tubes in and around the back of trucks.
 The chaos of the sort.

There are safety protocols that you are supposed to follow, but here is the kicker: You are occasionally written up if you have too many injuries on the job because that was a result of you not paying attention to your surroundings. Injuries are so under-reported at FedEx that it is not even funny. Everyone who works there will tell you that there is rarely a day when something doesn’t fall on you, cut you, scratch you, trip you, bump you, etc. We don’t report those. We sometimes report the bleeding but even then we are encouraged to triage ourselves at first aid stations (rarely well stocked or useful when your hands are already filthy) unless a medic is needed. At the local stations, there are rarely medics on call.

Just imagine the dangerous job (that pays just under $17 an hour part-time where I am) in which the average worker is expected to be able to move 50 lbs by themselves (but is actually goaded into lifting well above that weight and being docked for being slow), in slippery when NOT WET trailers or trucks (which are rarely maintained or cleaned) or working on those grated platforms which make you dizzy the first time you step on to them, or dealing with hazardous materials, or dealing with the dozens of various chutes and belts that are constantly getting jammed and requiring human intervention in almost always unsafe ways in the service of efficiency.

Then imagine doing it with the lights out. Or with the power only partially up. Or without the Internet. Without scanners that can make sense of the barcodes over which FedEx has some kind of proprietary lock and printers that can print those labels. Without being able to verify from HQ whether to proceed or not, through rain or sleet or snow or not. Or without the fans. In the heat. In Texas. Where construction workers routinely die of heatstroke outdoors, while the temperature inside the FedEx sortation facility is almost always ten degrees warmer (I am not allowed to carry my cell phone in so I have no way of fact checking this.)

Climate change will kill me one way or the other it seems, but the job at FedEx will actually kill me faster and not because I can’t do the job, but because they expect us to do it in increasingly dangerous conditions. We did it through COVID when mandatory masking was a fiction inside any FedEx facility (because you couldn’t breathe through them and move boxes and suffer the heat or cold, too). Some people wore them at the start. But almost no one wore them most of the time. Unsurprisingly, FedEx had a large number of COVID deniers among its workforce and lower management, not that anyone bothered to check what that would mean for us on the inside. We were shipping PPE and other necessary materials across the country and called “heroes” even though I had way too many conversations with 20-year-old co-workers who were convinced that COVID was a hoax (because they didn’t get it).

I hope you see the pattern. Every time a crisis happens, humans need to make up for the failures of the machines to deal with the crisis. And when the job is already hard and dangerous, the consequences are deadly. No one has died where I work that I know of. But I will be working this summer in the heat and through hurricane season. And I am no longer sure that this is a wise choice for many of us. More so than ever, we need a union at FedEx. I’m asking for a coworker.

And if the Amazon workers are joining the Teamsters, should we get in the fight, too?

To our readers: Tempest wants to run pieces like this one, where readers describe the signs of social crisis at work, in your community, in your daily life—and how you or other people are dealing with it. Please submit articles through this form.

Featured image credit: Dandy John; modified by Tempest.

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Malli Nath View All

Malli Nath is a long time union activist in Texas.