Package delivery drivers worked through the wildfire smoke in New York City on Wednesday, even as the air quality became "hazardous" in the afternoon and clouds of stinging yellow smog descended over the city. Drivers said that, despite the conditions outdoors, UPS did not change their hours or take any precautions to protect them from the smoke—not even providing masks.
“Normally during lunch, I open up my back door, I lay down. But today, the overwhelming smell of smoke literally kept me awake coughing,” said Dave Carew, a UPS driver with Teamsters Local 804, the branch of the union responsible for New York City, Long Island, and parts of New Jersey. “I have allergies too. So the last two days, my allergies have been off the charts. I've been talking to other drivers throughout the day, they're all coughing.”
Carew had been on the road since around 10 a.m. that morning, when air quality was categorized as “unhealthy” by the U.S. government, due to smoke from rampant Canadian wildfires drifting southward. At that point, Carew and other drivers confirmed, management had not given them direction to protect themselves from the smoke or to make their drives more comfortable. He added that trucks driven by UPS delivery drivers don’t have proper air conditioning or any form of air filtering, and are usually driven with their doors open to speed up the delivery process and help cope with heat.
As a result, he’d been inhaling the smog all day. “[The other drivers] are all doing the same thing as me,” he said. “We’ll be having a normal conversation, and one of us will get into a coughing fit, or both of us will get into a coughing fit.” Here, Carew broke off and coughed vigorously.
Reddit is also full of posts from Amazon delivery drivers who say they are worried about working through the smoke, which has made New York City have some of the most hazardous air in the world. Posts show that Amazon has made drivers in Canada work through the wildfires there as well. Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly told Motherboard in a statement that the company had shortened routes for Wednesday and Thursday, would provide masks to drivers, and encouraged drivers to return early if they felt unwell.
Visibility has also decreased because of the smoke, which poses a particular risk for drivers. “It looks like I’m driving through fog,” Carew said. “And when it does let up enough for the sun to shine through, it looks like it’s sunset the whole time. The shadows are all orange.”
A UPS spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement that, “We are closely tracking this rapidly-developing situation of smoke from Canadian wildfires affecting the air quality in parts of the U.S. The wellbeing and safety of UPSers is our number one priority.” They said the company was working on “a variety of immediate actions,” including mask distribution, and that it was monitoring the situation.
“[Management] sent the message about 10 minutes ago that said, ‘Wear a mask if you don't feel good,’” Carew said, laughing, at around 3:45 p.m. “They don’t care.”
Anthony Rosario, a former UPS driver who now works with Local 804, said that management at his location had simply told drivers that they were waiting on direction from corporate on whether to bring them back in.
“One of the supervisors told [a driver], ‘This is no different than a snowstorm. We're just waiting for corporate to tell us to bring you guys back,’” Rosario said. “What? They’re comparing toxic air to a snowstorm. It’s pretty dire.”
Rosario said that because there was no effective way to keep the smog out of the trucks, there was nothing that UPS could have done to protect its drivers other than provide good masks, the most effective option being N95s.
“Drivers should be getting some type of hazard pay for this,” Rosario said. “It’s like working in the pandemic. You're out there, you're risking your life, there's a virus out there that's killing people. Now apparently, New York has become the worst city in the world for air quality. They're telling old folks to stay home and young children to stay home. These workers are just out there doing their job, and nobody's telling them to get back.”
“There are guys that are going to be out there 12, 13 hours,” Carew said. “It's not bad enough that I literally can't breathe. But it's not a nice day.”