At least one employee’s family contracted the virus as a result of the facility’s outbreak.
It started with what felt like allergy symptoms. To ease his family and co-workers concerns, Greg* went to a pharmacy in early May to get tested for COVID-19.
To Greg’s surprise, the test came back positive. From there his condition worsened. A few days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
But the illness didn’t stop with him. Family members in his household, including children, ended up getting sick with the virus as well.
Outbreak at work
An outbreak at the Tucson UPS facility where Greg works has led to at least 42 other employees contracting the virus so far, according to their union Teamsters Local 104.
Karla Schumann, the union’s secretary-treasurer, told The Copper Courier that at least three of those employees had been admitted to the intensive care unit. At least two have seen their conditions improve, while one person was still in “pretty bad shape,” Schumann said.
“This affected my family greatly in a negative way,” Greg said. “And there are other people, coworkers, that are in worse positions and worse scenarios than I am as far as health and not being at work, and I feel for them.”
In mid-March UPS announced it would provide employees with up to two weeks, or 10 days, of emergency paid time off if they or a family member contracted COVID-19, or if the employee needed to self-quarantine. That was after the company first announced employees would only receive unpaid time off if affected by the virus. As a result, over 15,000 employees signed a petition asking for paid leave for two weeks, the amount of time the CDC recommends a person quarantine if exposed to the virus.
Both Schumann and Greg said UPS could have done much more much earlier to protect the workers at the Tucson facility.
Greg said UPS distributed hand sanitizer and masks, but he saw his employer’s efforts as the “bare minimum.”
Schumann said the company only started checking employees’ temperatures shortly before Gov. Doug Ducey’s state’s stay-at-home order ended. While employees have been able to choose to wear masks for a while, UPS reportedly did not mandate mask-wearing until mid-May.
“By this time, we’re now weeks into an outbreak,” Schumann said.
A UPS spokeswoman confirmed with The Copper Courier that the Tucson facility is requiring temperature checks for employees and has provided each employee with their own personal thermometer. She added that all employees are now wearing masks and social distancing, and the company cleans the facility daily and does deep cleaning on weekends. However, the spokeswoman declined to say when the practice of temperature checks and mandating masks began at the facility.
Schumann said workers have also reported being pressured to come into work even if they are sick, although Greg said that has not been his experience. However, multiple UPS workers in Tucson and other cities told The New York Times they continued to go work despite feeling sick for fear of losing their jobs or being disciplined for calling out.
Following Trump’s advice
The pressure to remain in the workplace mirrors national calls to reopen the economy by President Donald Trump. The president issued an executive order in late April requiring meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic despite multiple facilities reporting outbreaks.
During Trump’s visit to a Honeywell facility on May 5, he implied that Americans who were willing to risk their health and return to work would be considered “warriors.”
“I’m not saying anything is perfect, and yes, will some people be affected? Yes,” Trump said. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes, but we have to get our country open, and we have to get it opened soon.”
Layoffs and job loss due to the pandemic hit communities of color and low-income workers the hardest, according to recent polls. And many low-income jobs, which are disproportionately held by people of color, have been considered essential, meaning workers like delivery drivers have often faced with the tough choice of earning income or protecting their health.
Ducey announced the end to Arizona’s stay-at-home order shortly after Trump’s visit. Since that time, Arizona has seen a continual rise in coronavirus cases, with a record-breaking 770 cases reported on May 27.
Union demands change
Teamsters Local 104 called on UPS to temporarily shut down the facility and test all employees while also bringing in outside experts to help implement better practices.
“You don’t just wait for [an outbreak] to wear itself out, you have to mitigate it. You have to test, you have to trace, and you have to be aggressive about those things or it just continues,” Schumann said. “And the tough part of it is, is it doesn’t just stay within those walls. These workers take it back out to the community. It puts the community at risk, it puts the customers at risk. It’s a very serious scenario that needs to be dealt with.”
The UPS spokeswoman downplayed the idea that the workers had all gotten sick as a result of the job. “We do not assume, and neither should others, that cases of infection occur as a result of the work environment, especially when there is a community spread,” she said in a statement.
But Greg said he strongly believes he wouldn’t have gotten sick if it weren’t for work.
“I believe 110% that I got sick from their Tucson facility,” he said. “Just because there was a large group of people that started becoming sick and testing positive around the first of May … and I was one of them. One person got sick, and it blew up. It was ridiculous.”
The company has not signaled any intention to temporarily shut down the Tucson facility or take other action as the union has asked.
“UPS has not made any changes to their current process. They certainly are not entertaining our requests,” Schumann said.
About 700 in-state employees work at the Tucson facility, according to the union, while about 180 workers have been brought in from other states to make up for those who are out sick.
The southern Arizona facility isn’t the only place where UPS workers are raising red flags. According to VTDigger, a Vermont UPS worker said she filed a whistleblower complaint after she was fired for raising safety concerns.
In Boston, where at least three employees tested positive, the Teamsters Local 25 president said the union was “appalled at the absolute lack of an appropriate response to the pandemic and incomprehensible refusal to provide equipment and products.”
“I think there’s a lot of companies that I feel have gone above and beyond to keep their employees safe,” Greg said. “And I just don’t think UPS did that in our facility.”
Editor’s note: An alternate name has been used to protect the identity of the worker, who feared retribution from UPS.