UPS drivers threaten to strike. Climate change is one reason.

By Ariel Wittenberg | 07/25/2023 06:29 AM EDT

The dangers of extreme heat have simmered throughout a labor dispute that has pointed to the risks facing delivery drivers.

Driver Hudson de Almeida in a UPS truck.

UPS driver Hudson de Almeida steers through a neighborhood while delivering packages in Haverhill, Mass., last month. Charles Krupa/AP Photo

UPS deliveries nationwide could abruptly stop next week if the company and its drivers’ union can’t reach an agreement over wages and forced overtime in a series of labor negotiations that are peaking amid extreme temperatures across the country.

Some 340,000 United Parcel Service workers, represented by the Teamsters, are threatening to walk off the job when their current contract expires Aug. 1 in a strike that could have a multibillion-dollar impact nationwide.

The potential work stoppage may seem like a typical labor dispute. But extreme heat and the risks of climate change have simmered throughout the contract negotiations.


Delivery drivers generally are vulnerable to health impacts from high temperatures due to the strenuous nature of their work. But UPS drivers are particularly at risk because their trucks lack air conditioning. Although the company tentatively agreed in June that all trucks purchased after 2024 would be cooled, separate contract provisions around overtime and surveillance can also impact drivers’ safety during heat waves.

“These other issues exacerbate and amplify the extreme heat,” said Matt Leichenger, a Brooklyn-based UPS driver and a union steward. “So, this isn’t just about air conditioning, it’s about working conditions and a company putting their bottom line so, so far above their people.”

UPS did not respond to requests for comment.

Labor experts say the UPS talks are a harbinger of how climate change could increasingly factor into corporate policymaking.

“The UPS drivers get it,” said Anastasia Christman, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. “They are getting the connection between economic issues and health and safety that policymakers often see as separate things.”

Laborers — like those lifting heavy packages — are particularly vulnerable to so-called exertional heat stroke. Physical activity makes it difficult for the body to cool itself down, a factor that gets more dangerous as temperature and humidity rise. Symptoms of overheating range from dizziness, nausea and vomiting to a fast heart rate and deadly heat stroke.

Delivery drivers have some of the highest rates of heat illness in the country. An E&E News analysis of data kept by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year found that parcel delivery and mail service workers had the second-highest rate of falling ill due to heat between 2015 and 2021. Only the construction industry reported more incidents to the federal agency.

UPS, which logged 117 heat incidents with OSHA during that period, has come under fire because its trucks are not air conditioned, leaving drivers baking in temperatures that can be tens of degrees higher than those outdoors.

“The fact is, beyond traffic accidents, this should not be a deadly job. But it is, thanks to climate conditions that are impacting workers and not being effectively addressed by management,” said Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen.

Last summer, extreme heat in Pasadena, Calif., killed UPS driver Esteban Chavez Jr., who was found dead in the front seat of his truck a day after his 24th birthday.

Chavez’s death served as a rallying cry for the Teamsters union, which was already gearing up for contract negotiations and planned to make heat safety a priority. The union sent a letter to the company accusing it of “literally sending drivers out to die in the heat.” Drivers talked with journalists from national media outlets to call attention to a lack of air conditioning in delivery trucks.

At the time, company representatives told reporters that air-conditioned trucks would be “ineffective” because drivers stop so frequently and often leave their doors open. That changed last month when UPS tentatively agreed to include air conditioning in all new trucks beginning next year and to retrofit old trucks with fans.

It was a massive victory for the Teamsters, with General President Sean O’Brien saying, “Air conditioning is coming to UPS, and Teamster members in these vehicles will get the relief and protection they’ve been fighting for.”

More than just AC

Since then, the Teamsters union has continued talking about heat as its bargaining priorities shifted to economic issues.

Two days after the air conditioning victory, the union voted to authorize a strike if a new agreement isn’t reached when its contract expires at the end of July.

Among its demands are “protection from heat and other workplace hazards,” along with higher wages, more full-time jobs, and an end to forced overtime and harassment from management, according to a Teamsters press release.

While access to air conditioning is crucial for worker safety, the rate of exertion and people’s ability to rest and recharge in their off-hours can also impact heat vulnerability, according to health specialists.

Christman of the National Employment Law Project said wages are connected to workers’ heat resilience. If part-time workers are not paid enough to be able to afford air conditioning at home, or if they need to work a second job where heat exposure is a problem, they arrive at work more vulnerable to heat.

Similarly, union officials say forced overtime can endanger workers by keeping them in the heat for longer periods of time.

Teamsters spokesperson Kara Deniz wrote in an email that “working hours play a role in the impact of heat on the body.”

“A/C, heat mitigation, work hours are all part of these negotiations,” she said.

Another issue at the bargaining table is surveillance cameras and sensors inside trucks that supervisors use to ensure drivers are working efficiently. Drivers are monitored for small details, including whether they take too many left turns — when going right three times would take less time.

Leichenger, the UPS driver, said a supervisor once advised him against filing an incident report and seeking medical treatment after he was bitten by a dog because it could reduce his productivity.

“So even when you know you are hot and you know you need water, the voice that sticks in your head, even when you aren’t talking to them, is the voice of your manager telling you you’re not moving fast enough and you may be in the office tomorrow for discipline if you don’t pick up the pace,” he said.

UPS said in a press release last month, when the tentative agreement was struck, that “we care deeply about our people and their safety remains our top priority. Heat safety is no exception.”

“We have always remained open to solutions that keep our employees safe on hot days,” the statement said.

Labor advocates hope the Teamsters’ emphasis on heat safety during the contract negotiations will ripple into other industries where workers toil in sweltering conditions.

Christman, of the National Employment Law Project, has studied examples of workers walking off the job rather than face unsafe conditions. She said that while heat has led to work stoppages in the past, particularly during record-breaking events, the UPS contract negotiations could have a wider influence.

“UPS is on my doorstep more than my own family,” she said. “So we hope other workers will start saying, ‘Hey, it’s really hot in my workplace, too,’ and collectively organize to protect themselves.”