Report — From the March 2015 issue

The Spy Who Fired Me

The human costs of workplace monitoring

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 7 )

I first got interested in the data-driven workforce not long after I moved from a dilapidated apartment in Brooklyn that had a live-in super to a slightly more solid walk-up that does not. I began to notice something frustrating about my UPS deliveries. They never arrived. When I wasn’t home, I’d leave a note asking for packages to be left at the laundromat on the corner. I’d get an attempted-delivery note instead. The same thing sometimes happened even when I was home — I’d find an attempted-delivery note, but no one had rung my doorbell. Packages were routinely returned to sender. Then I learned about UPS’s use of something called telematics.

Telematics is a neologism coined from two other neologisms — telecommunications and informatics — to describe technologies that wirelessly transmit data from remote sensors and GPS devices to computers for analysis. The telematics system that now governs the working life of a driver for UPS includes handheld DIADs, or delivery-information acquisition devices, as well as more than 200 sensors on each delivery truck that track everything from backup speeds to stop times to seat-belt use. When a driver stops and scans a package for delivery, the system records the time and location; it records these details again when a customer signs for the package. Much of this information flows to a supervisor in real time. The Teamsters, the union that represents UPS employees, won contract language that says drivers can’t be fired based solely on the numbers in their telematics reports, but supervisors have found workarounds, and telematics-related firings have become routine.

One warm day last fall I met with a man I’ll call Jeff Rose, who for the past fifteen years has driven a UPS delivery route in a working-class neighborhood in one of New York City’s outer boroughs. He was taking his two o’clock lunch break at a diner on the corner of a modest commercial strip and a leafy residential street. Rose, who asked that I not use his real name, said that telematics was introduced as a safety measure when it was rolled out in New York six or seven years ago. Lists were posted at distribution centers to shame the biggest seat-belt scofflaws. But safety is not the reason given for telematics on UPS investor calls. On those, executives speak instead about the potential for telematics to save the firm $100 million in operating efficiencies, including reductions in fuel, maintenance, and labor.

Indeed, around the time telematics was being introduced in New York, UPS began to increase the number of stops on each route. At morning meetings at the distribution center, Rose told me, supervisors would announce, “Hey, your stop count is going up by ten.” As recently as a decade ago, a driver’s stop count might be eighty-five, but in recent years it rose to ninety-five, then a hundred. These numbers are reflected in UPS corporate filings, which show that daily domestic package deliveries grew by 1.4 million between 2009 and 2013, the years in which telematics was being rolled out — and these additional packages were delivered by a thousand fewer drivers. Total domestic employees shrank during the same period by 22,000.

Illustration by John Ritter

Illustration by John Ritter

These days, on an average shift, Rose makes 110 stops and delivers 400 packages. He leaves his house at seven in the morning and seldom gets home before nine-thirty at night, when he is so exhausted that he rarely makes it to bed — he grabs dinner and passes out on the couch. “If you go to one of these UPS facilities at shift-change time, you’d think you were at a football game, the way people are limping, bent over, with shoulder injuries, neck injuries, knee injuries,” said David Levin, an organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform caucus within the Teamsters. “It’s fifteen years of rushing, rushing, rushing, working when you’re exhausted, working those long days, running up and down stairs with boxes.”

Rose told me he knows at least ten drivers at his facility who have had knee or shoulder surgery. He suffers from chronic back pain, but a surgeon told him there was no point in operating — he has so many different injuries that surgery won’t help. UPS coaches drivers to follow eight rules for safe lifting, which Rose rattled off by heart: “Get close to the object; have your feet shoulder-width apart; bend your knees; test the package for shifting weight; grab at opposite corners; lift in one fluid motion; keep it within your power zone; pivot, don’t twist.” But, he said, “if I did those eight things for each box, how productive would I be?”

Thanks to telematics, Rose’s supervisor can answer that question minute by minute. For every driver within his purview, he can monitor a neighborhood map with the driver’s route traced in teal and the stops marked and numbered. Another window shows a complete list of addresses on the route and the number of packages per address. A third window shows the driver’s speed, whether the engine is off or on, whether the bulkhead — the massive, rolling rear door — is open or closed, whether the seat belt is engaged, whether the driver is backing up, and more. In the center of the screen, a fourth window shows the number of minutes allotted per stop and whether the driver is under or over that target.

I saw a video capture of a telematics report from a facility in Queens that made clear just how unrealistic those allotments are. Every few stops the driver beats his time by a second, or by nineteen seconds, or even by a minute. But more often than not, the driver goes over, by three minutes, or four, or even ten. As I watched, the driver’s cumulative over/under number kept creeping up, until it was north of four hours over. At the same time, safety measures, like seat-belt use, got spotty. A printout of the data from a single driver’s shift can be up to forty pages long. There might be a page dedicated to backing-up events, another for stop times, and so on. But sprinting to an apartment and slapping a delivery-attempt notice on the door without ringing the bell or waiting for someone to make it down a three-story walk-up — well, that’s a shortcut UPS’s telematics system would have no way of catching.

After lunch, I trailed Rose on his route for a few hours. He told me that he refuses to sprint anymore — “This job is the long haul” — but from the moment he swung into his seat, he was constantly in motion. I lost him immediately, on the way to his first stop, when he zipped through an intersection just before the light turned. At his third stop, he pulled a small box from the front of the truck; once he was buzzed in, he bounced up a steep flight of stairs. At the next stop, the boxes were larger, so he had to come around back, pull up the heavy bulkhead, and use a hand truck.

At another stop, Rose had to make multiple trips, with a mix of small and large packages. We were nearing rush hour, and many of the cars around us were honking aggressively. With each new batch of boxes, Rose jaywalked across the street; walking to the corner and crossing at the light would have cost far too much time. It was a balmy day, with a clear sky. I tried to imagine him doing this when the streets were icy and the gutters running with slush. I recalled one driver I’d read about who’d been hit by a car while making deliveries during the 2012 holiday rush and ended up in a ten-day coma.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is the editor of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and was a 2013–2014 Alicia Patterson Fellow.

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2019

Ramblin’ Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just Keep Going North”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Corralón

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Marmalade Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Books

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trials of Vasily Grossman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.