Four years ago, I was out jogging with an old friend when she told me a puzzling story: Her longtime UPS driver had just reappeared after more than a monthlong absence. He’d been hospitalized for stress, she told me.
Stress? How stressful could that job be? So I asked to meet him. Over coffee, the deliveryman, whom I’ll call Bill (he asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the company), explained that United Parcel Service had been upgrading its systems for tracking employees. Now the truck he drove was full of sensors. They reported when he opened the bulkhead door. When he backed up. When his foot was on the brake. When he was idling. When he buckled his safety belt. A high-resolution stream of data, including all that information and his GPS coordinates, flowed back to the UPS offices. The system is called “telematics.”
With more than 15 years on the job, Bill already knew how to follow classic UPS protocols, with names that sounded like dogma from a productivity-worshipping cult: “The Five Seeing Habits,” “The Ten-Point Commentary,” “The 340 Methods.” Guidelines derived from time-and-motion studies told him the most efficient way to do everything: how to handle his ignition key, which shirt pocket to use for his pen (right-handed people should use the left pocket, and vice versa), how to pick a “walk path” from the truck, and how to occupy time while riding in an elevator.
But telematics ratcheted up that pressure. Now drivers were called to account for a litany of small sins. They were asked to justify bathroom breaks and any other deviations—“stealing time” in corporate-speak—that could chip away at their SPORH (pronounced “spoor”) count, or Stops Per On-Road Hour.
“I have no problem doing a heavy, hard job,” Bill told me. “But now, after you do the job, you have to look back every day and say, ‘Did I do this? Did I do that?’ They have a report that tells them everything that you did wrong. For instance, if you turned the truck on before you put on your seat belt, that’s wasting gas.”
For UPS, whose revenues topped $58 billion in 2014, tracking worker productivity goes straight to the bottom line. Time is money, and management knows exactly how much: “Just one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million,” the company’s senior director of process management, Jack Levis, told NPR last year. He appeared on a boosterish episode of the Planet Money podcast titled “The Future of Work Looks Like a UPS Truck.” Levis and other UPS executives have a favorite quip: “We’ve moved from a trucking company that has technology to basically a technology company that just happens to have trucks.”
But UPS trucks aren’t driven by robots—at least not yet—and of the 10 current and former drivers I’ve interviewed, all felt like they were handling packages in the Panopticon. “Data is just a proxy for control,” said Sam Dwyer, 26, a former screenwriter and marketing-industry analyst who spent eight months as a driver last year.
A current driver, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of getting fired, said: “It’s like you’re fighting for your job every day. They harass you: ‘Why did it take you 10 minutes here? Why did it take you this long there?’… They want you to hate your job and quit so they can hire somebody at half the pay.”
The metrics-based harassment of workers is common, said Tim Sylvester, the president of Teamsters Local 804, when I visited his Long Island City union hall in March. He told the tale of one UPS driver, Domenick DeDomenico, who spent 10 days in a coma after getting hit by a car while delivering packages. A year later, after surgery and extensive physical therapy, DeDomenico was back on the job. When the tracking data indicated that he’d dipped below his pre-accident delivery rate of 13.23 packages per hour, managers threatened to fire him, DeDomenico said at a union rally.
Some UPS supervisors post printouts of drivers’ data every day to keep up the pressure. “Guys get scared,” said Josh Pomeranz, Local 804’s in-house counsel. “They start cutting corners.” According to Pomeranz, knee and back surgeries are very common among UPS workers. One driver lodged a protest by posting a telematics-inspired parody of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on YouTube. (Sample lyrics: “He sees you when you’re driving. He knows when you’re on break!”)
Job stress is a popular topic on BrownCafe, an independent chat board for UPS workers. In two separate forum threads, when some members referred to apparent driver suicides in Atlanta, Georgia, and Paris, Tennessee, others began talking about management pressures. In September 2014, when a recently fired UPS deliveryman in Birmingham shot two supervisors to death before killing himself, forum members speculated about the role played by a pressure-driven corporate culture. “It was just a matter of time before somebody went ballistic,” wrote one. Another added: “We are people, damn it, not some stupid metric.”
How did we get here? A mere 48 years ago, on his weekly program The Twenty-First Century, Walter Cronkite proclaimed: “Technology is opening a new world of leisure time. One government report projects that by the year 2000, the United States will have a 30-hour workweek and monthlong vacations as the rule.” Machines, many people thought, would lift the yoke of labor from humanity’s shoulders. A Time magazine essay predicted that “by 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy.”
The pundits had one thing right: Advances in technology did increase national productivity. In the three decades following World War II, productivity and hourly wages grew roughly in tandem, by 97 percent and 91 percent, respectively. Then they were decoupled: Workers produced steadily more and earned proportionally less. From 1973 to 2013, while output rose 74 percent, the average worker’s pay rose just 9 percent, according to a January 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
“All the productivity gains have been harvested and turned into corporate profits,” explained Michael Childers, the director of the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin. CEOs now make 296 times as much as the typical worker, according to the EPI; a half-century ago, they made only 20 times as much. Likewise, after-tax corporate profits hit their highest level on record as a share of the GDP in 2013, even as workers’ salaries and wages hit their lowest levels.
UPS demonstrates perfectly how technology now governs the U.S. workplace. Metrics enable “management by stress,” said Childers. Two years ago, he met workers who were processing insurance claims at a Pennsylvania call center, where managers monitored every conversation and keystroke. They used that data to discipline employees, he said, constantly urging more speed. “If you get a few calls where people speak slowly in a row, you know you’re going to hear about it next week,” Childers recounted. “Always in the back of your mind as a worker is, ‘Oh my God, I wish this person would talk faster.’” The workers’ anxiety and exhaustion were palpable: “You had 20-year employees quitting, people throwing up in the parking lot.”
In the winter of 2013, Reynalda Cruz, 42, took a job as a FedEx warehouse temp in Edison, New Jersey. She was issued a computerized package scanner and told to strap it to her right forearm. But the weight of the device became unbearable, she said. As she reached repeatedly for boxes that were above her chest level, stacking them on pallets and then wrapping them in plastic, her arm grew inflamed. Coworkers told her this was normal. They counseled her to take a Tylenol or Motrin. Meanwhile, her data-gathering wrist scanner had registered a troubling trend: Her pace was dropping. When supervisors confronted Cruz, she told them she was in constant pain. The same device that was tracking her speed was inhibiting it, too. They urged her to “pick it up,” she said.
“At the beginning, when they put it on my arm ... I said, ‘Oh, wow!’ But after the hours went by, I saw this really wasn’t good for me at all,” she recalled, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “How is it human beings can end up working like this? They were measuring our time, our production, as if we were robots.” Today, Cruz is an organizer for New Labor, a nonprofit advocacy group representing immigrant workers in New Jersey.
Laura Graham was a seasonal worker last year in Coffeyville, Kansas, at one of the infamous Amazon warehouses. She was born in 1965, when the techno-utopian dream was ascendant, but the workplace she describes, like Cruz’s warehouse, is the inverse of those earlier predictions. Every time she scanned a piece of merchandise, another countdown began on her screen, indicating how many seconds she had to reach the next item, as if she’d graduated to the next level in a video game. Her progress toward hourly goals was also tracked. When an accidental trip down a wrong aisle left her more than five minutes behind, a supervisor arrived to scold her. Graham’s body rebelled against the demands of the device, which directed how she walked from 10 to 20 miles a day on concrete in the 915,000-square-foot complex for $11.25 an hour. “There’s nothing to describe the misery, physically,” she said. “I started getting these really sharp pains through my arches ... it ended up being plantar fasciitis.” Putting new insoles in her shoes didn’t help. To cope, she took two ibuprofen tablets halfway through the graveyard shift, which ran from 5:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., and another two at the end. On days off, she tried to keep from using her feet, lying in bed except for visits to the bathroom or shower.
Amazon and UPS, two of the most successful companies in the United States, both use technology to drive their workers hard. But there’s a big difference: UPS has a union. Amazon does not. As a result, UPS drivers make a decent wage—$18.75 an hour to start, rising to $32 after four years on the job—and can negotiate for protections.
In May 2011, Teamsters across the country began wearing stickers on which UPS stood for “Unfair Production Standards.” This was four months before Bill broke into a cold sweat on the job, couldn’t breathe, and was rushed to the hospital in the throes of his first panic attack. While the Teamsters’ contract with UPS has a clause stipulating that workers can’t be disciplined based on telematics data alone, a gaping loophole in that agreement—it’s invalid in cases of worker “dishonesty,” although the contract doesn’t specify what such cases may include—renders such protections toothless. Local 804 representatives said they’d hoped to see more robust language added in the last round of contract negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters, but it didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, the pressure to produce more and faster keeps intensifying. Some UPS employees and union reps told me about the tricks workers use to keep up. Drivers have been known to sit on top of already-fastened seat belts to save time. (Recently, they’ve been getting busted for that, however, since sensors can tell if a seat belt hasn’t been unbuckled at a delivery stop.) In one warehouse in Queens, they said, a safety shut-off mechanism had been disabled—someone taped a reflector against the electric eye tracking the conveyor belt—because it meant fewer false alarms stopping production.
And workers are not looking forward to the arrival of a new routing system for drivers—called On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation, or ORION—that UPS is rolling out across the country. The company claims it will cut mileage and save $300 million annually. Teamsters elsewhere in the country have called it “telematics on steroids.” They worry that it’s a new way to erode workers’ earning power by dumbing down—or “deskilling”—the job to make them expendable.
If workers are to prevent companies from turning their workplaces into Panopticons, and firing them based on increasingly inflexible metrics, they will have to organize around new types of demands. That means bargaining for very narrow language about what kind of data may be gathered—from e-mail to phone recordings and GPS movements—and setting clear boundaries on how employers can use such information. It also means setting times and places that are off-limits.
This will be a challenge, because unions themselves are under attack. In March, Wisconsin became the 25th “right-to-work” state, enacting anti-union legislation that critics have aptly nicknamed “right-to-work-for-less.” Legislators in Missouri and New Mexico may follow suit. In November 2014, a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board required Amazon to post notices in its warehouses stating that employees are free to unionize. When I asked Laura Graham if she planned to work another holiday season there, she said yes. She’s applying to one of the company’s warehouses in Texas—a right-to-work state since 1993—and expects her experience as a seasonal worker to be pretty much the same as last time.
“A big part of it for me, and the reason I can go back, is psychological: I know I’m only going to be there for two months,” she said. “I’ll be miserable for two months, and then just call it a day.”
Jessica Bruder is an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on subcultures and the dark corners of the economy. Reprinted from The Nation (June 12, 2015), a weekly magazine of politics and culture.