On Sunday, March 22, FedEx chairman and CEO Frederick W. Smith went on Face the Nation to talk about how the novel coronavirus is affecting the U.S. economy, and to make a few specific claims about how his company is keeping workers safe. "We have massive efforts underway in all of our facilities to try to socially distance folks and their workstations," Smith told interviewer Margaret Brennan. “We're providing gloves and all kinds of antiseptic swabs and things of that nature.”
It’s been over two weeks since Smith made that claim, and at least two separate outlets—the New York Times and NBC News—have since raised questions about safety standards for FedEx employees during the COVID-19 crisis. (The Times piece focused on the private shipping industry as a whole, interviewing employees from UPS as well.) Now, a worker from one of FedEx’s distribution centers in Wisconsin told VICE they’re still not receiving basic sanitary protections. There were only one or two bottles of hand sanitizer provided for the whole facility, the worker said, which were long empty on their most recent workday last week. No one has been provided work-issued gloves or masks, they say. And no one is able to stay six feet apart, all basic benchmarks for helping slow the spread of COVID-19. (Wisconsin’s governor issued a Safer At Home order on March 24, prohibiting non-essential travel and requiring individuals to stay six feet apart in public spaces. Wisconsin public health officials have echoed the CDC in calling for people to wear cloth masks when leaving home.)
“It’s not happening,” the worker said, referring to receiving sanitary supplies or practicing social distancing. (They have been granted anonymity to freely discuss their working conditions, because they feared retribution for speaking out.) “We haven’t been offered masks, gloves, nothing. We had a little table with supplies on it. The Clorox wipes disappeared. There’s a hand sanitizer bottle with nothing in it. Nobody in the factory is wearing gloves.”
Video taken in the facility and sent to VICE appears to bear out these claims. “There’s one thing of Clorox and one thing of sanitizer in this whole factory,” the narrator says, panning over a video of a container of Clorox wipes and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. The person holding the camera then walks down rows and rows of employees, who hold out their bare hands. “No gloves, no gloves, no gloves,” the narrator says.
(The employee's voice has been altered in this video to protect their privacy.)
The Wisconsin employee said that COVID-19 has drastically changed their working conditions; they’re seeing a radically increased volume of packages, for one. “Typically in our building we’ll get 6,000 packages," they said, "and today it was 10,000 packages.” Those packages also tend to be much heavier than usual, they added. “It’s a lot of home decor and couches. Trampolines. Exercise equipment. Wine. People are stuck at home. They’re bored.” The employee makes $16 an hour, regardless of how many packages there are. "Our volume has gone way up. We're working way harder and not being compensated for it."
In group meetings where employees have asked about being given hazard pay, managers are either noncommittal or get “upset,” the employee said. In a recent meeting, the employee added, a coworker asked if they should stay home if a roommate was sick. “They said, ‘Absolutely not, you come to work.” Distribution center workers are largely part-time employees, the employee said, and aren’t eligible for health insurance until they’ve worked at the facility for at least a year.
Do you know something we should know? We'd love to talk to you. Contact the reporter at email@example.com.
Despite Smith’s claims that FedEx facilities are undertaking “massive efforts” to promote social distancing, the worker said that employees are still “right next to each other all day.” They also regularly interact with FedEx drivers and other employees. “Tons of people are in very close proximity all day. There’s no effort to change that. I’ve not seen gloves in our building. They’ve not been offered to us.
“We’re just bodies,” the employee added. “They just want to get packages out.”
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about whether FedEx—and other shipping services—are taking necessary safety precautions, and it’s part of an emerging narrative about whether essential workers are being adequately protected by their employers. To date, numerous major industries have faced allegations that they’re not properly caring for the people who are holding this fraying world together at the seams: medical providers, grocery store employees, farm workers, slaughterhouse employees, and home health aides, among others. The day before Smith went on Face the Nation to claim his employees were perfectly safe, the New York Times had run their piece interviewing warehouse workers and drivers for both UPS and FedEx, who almost uniformly said they were going to work, even when sick, because they feared being fired for calling out. Those workers also told the Times that safety supplies were sometimes insufficient:
Some warehouse workers said supervisors had rebuffed them when they pleaded for bleach, masks, gloves and a ready supply of hand sanitizer. In some facilities, even hand soap and paper towels are scarce, employees said. Employees continue to be jammed shoulder to shoulder along conveyor belts and required to maintain rituals such as security pat-downs.”
Almost two weeks later, drivers with FedEx Ground, the division that delivers most of the packages in North America, told NBC that they weren’t getting coronavirus protections or additional sick leave. Those drivers, as NBC pointed out, are not, in most states, classified as employees of FedEx Ground, but are classified as independent contractors instead. (FedEx told NBC they have "taken a number of steps to support the health and safety of service providers and their employees, as well as the customers with whom they interact.”)
The distribution center workers, however, are direct employees of FedEx. “I have no idea who’s driving these decisions,” about their working conditions, the Wisconsin employee told VICE. “I don’t know if it’s state by state or if it’s top of the food chain.”
In a statement to VICE, a FedEx spokesperson said:
FedEx is an essential service to continue the movement of aid and commerce around the world, and we take that responsibility very seriously. The safety and well-being of our 475,000 team members is our top priority. We are immensely proud of our workforce and their unwavering commitment to deliver for our customers and communities through this global crisis. We are closely monitoring guidance by the World Health Organization and other public health organizations and taking proper health precautions. We are also encouraging our team members to take any signs of illness seriously and seek medical attention as needed.
FedEx added that some of the safety measures it has adopted include suspending requirements for most customer signatures, “providing sanitizer at facilities,” “promoting social distancing on the job, including measures at security screening, on employee shuttles, and in common areas,” disinfecting facilities and vehicles more frequently and “sharing prevention tips via manager meetings, signage and digital monitors in facilities.” The company says it is also “actively working to secure additional PPE to distribute to team members.”
In a followup statement, FedEx reiterated that it was “actively working to provide and replenish” supplies of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and latex gloves and masks, and said it had “secured enough surgical masks for our North American workforce for a month.”
In addition to our previous statement below, we can confirm that, across our networks, FedEx is actively working to provide and replenish supplies of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and personal protective equipment such as latex gloves and masks in accordance with guidance from the CDC, WHO and other public health organizations. Due to the great demand for PPE around the world and challenges presented by significant shortages, FedEx has been operating under our emergency supply process. We created a dedicated COVID-19 Sourcing Response team which is solely focused on working to ensure our employees and facilities have what they need as we navigate this crisis. The team has been working 24/7 with vendors around the globe to find and secure PPE supplies for our employees.
Our reporting shows that cleaning supplies, gloves and hand sanitizer have been supplied to all U.S. locations. If there is a lack of supplies at any location, we ask that employees immediately notify their manager so a supply order can be placed.
In anticipation of changes to CDC guidance surrounding face masks, the sourcing team has secured enough surgical masks for our North American workforce for a month.
Finally, FedEx told VICE that it "continues to promote social distancing on the job," and is "assessing and implement temporary compensation adjustments" in markets "that are experiencing coronavirus-related shortages.
The company is very appreciative of all our team members’ tireless efforts during this unprecedented time when our customers and communities need us more than ever. FedEx has a unique responsibility in the world to step up and deliver during times of crisis. We’ve done it before, and we’re doing it now. We continue to promote social distancing on the job, including measures at security screening, on employee shuttles, and in common areas, to keep our people as safe as possible. We have also implemented a number of protocols in the field to limit personal interaction, including suspending physical signature requirements for the vast majority of shipments.
To ensure adequate staffing, we are assessing and implementing temporary compensation adjustments in certain markets that are experiencing COVID-19 related shortages, much as we do during our Peak season. If a team member is feeling ill or has been diagnosed with an illness, our sick policy includes a range of options for paid time off.
CEO Frederick Smith’s TV appearance was what spurred the Wisconsin employee to contact us, they said. They forcefully rejected the claim that they’d been provided gloves or masks.
“I’ve had it up to here with this company telling lies,” they said. “We’re still treated like crud. We haven’t gotten any compensation and he’s on there bragging about how he’s taking care of everybody. I’m sure it’s a lot of people’s faults. It could be our managers that aren’t supplying us. But it’s not true. It’s just not true, what he’s saying.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.