A long line of people waiting to claim packages outside the UPS Customer Care Center in East Oakland.
A long line of people waiting to claim packages outside the UPS Customer Care Center in East Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

UPS customers in Oakland are demanding action from the delivery giant as thousands of packages have gotten stuck at a United Parcel Service warehouse near Oakland International Airport, causing many people to miss important personal and business items—including medication. 

While most UPS customers we spoke with expected delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re outraged by what they see as misleading messaging from the company. Dozens of customers shared screenshots of phone notifications they received from UPS over the last month repeatedly saying their packages were about to be delivered, even though the packages were stuck in transit many miles away.

Between June 2 and June 26, one Oakland UPS customer received nearly thirty notifications about a single package, which was shipped as a “2nd Day Air” delivery.

Mike, a manager at a tech company who lives in Oakland and asked us not to publish his last name, received a message from UPS on June 14 saying his package of medications, which required a signature, was “out for delivery,” forcing him to wait at his Oakland home for hours. He has received several similar messages since, but has yet to receive that order.  

“It’s like being in a hostage situation,” Mike told The Oaklandside. He says he spent hours talking to UPS to figure out why undelivered packages were being scanned for delivery every day. Finally, he gave up and paid for a separate order of the medications at three times the price through another vendor, which forwarded the package for last-mile delivery through the U.S. Postal Service. 

One UPS customer representative, Mike says, told him technical failures in early June at the Pardee Street warehouse were to blame for the backup, an assertion later denied to him by a UPS training coordinator he spoke with over the phone.

The Oaklandside also spoke to multiple UPS workers, including drivers. One veteran UPS worker in the Bay Area said the Pardee Street hub, like others around the country, has been suffering from issues with the automated conveyor belts that sort packages. The system uses “hockey-puck-style” levers that push packages to outbound trailers. The levers have a weight limit of around 50 to 70 pounds, and if a worker mistakenly places heavier packages onto the sorting conveyor, the system can get jammed for hours. 

With far more people ordering packages during the pandemic, UPS workers say the breakdowns were inevitable, but could have been prevented if the company had been better prepared. 

Reached over email, UPS communications representative Dionicio Hernandez said delays are due to COVID-driven high volume “similar to the peak holiday shipping season,” with “about 70% of our deliveries to residences compared to about 50% during the rest of the year.” Supply chain analysts have also noted that direct delivery—meaning delivering packages one at a time to people’s homes, instead of in bulk to retailers—is costlier and more labor-intensive. 

UPS declined to make any of its executives available to speak on concerns raised by local UPS customers and workers, despite repeated requests. Hernandez said the company is continuing to hire more employees at the Oakland hub and elsewhere in the Bay Area. “The vast majority of our services continue with the same time commitments our customers have come to expect,” he said over email. 

Oakland UPS drivers say they feel the pain

Mike, the Oakland UPS customer who ordered medication, said a Georgia-based UPS training coordinator advised him to simply ignore her own company’s app notifications, a sign that corporate efforts don’t always line up with the situation on the ground. By Sunday night, as Mike and others posted screenshots they had taken of their phantom notifications on social media, several found UPS appeared to have deleted them from their UPS online accounts, seemingly erasing weeks of message history. 

Meanwhile, some local UPS employees say they’re totally overwhelmed.

Multiple employees who work for UPS in Oakland and around the Bay Area told The Oaklandside the massive backup, which reached up to 100,000 packages in Oakland two weeks ago according to one employee, goes way beyond conveyor belts. Nearly four consecutive months of intense production has led to growing burnout and day-off requests. Exhausted workers are taking scheduled vacations. A shortage of people available to handle the demand continues, despite dozens of workers working up to and past the union-mandated maximum of 60 hours a week. 

“It’s similar to a snowball or domino effect. Once a hub gets behind, it cascades through the next closest hubs as we all try to help the affected hub. Then we get backlogged. Then more comes as people continue to stay at home and order more,” one of our UPS sources told us. All local UPS employees we spoke with requested anonymity because they feared professional retribution.

On top of this, the disclosure that a handful of UPS workers contracted COVID-19 in the last two weeks has led to stricter precautions and fears on the warehouse floor.

From a consumer point of view, the key issue is that UPS logistics require scanning and rescanning at every package transfer point and for every type of package, triggering the inaccurate notifications for recipients but also placing a huge burden on drivers to make those deliveries daily even when it is physically impossible. Maintaining high productivity delivery levels during the pandemic is leading to severe duress, workers say. 

The details of the scanning and delivery process shed light on how easy it can be for packages to stay in the warehouse day after day. One local UPS worker took us step-by-step through the process.

After workers unload packages from 18-wheeler trailers, they said, each package is scanned with a label that marks their specific belt, truck, and loading locations. Based on the label, a package gets routed to an automatic belt, which, if it hasn’t malfunctioned, sends the package to the correct truck to be loaded. 

If there isn’t room inside the truck, it is put away elsewhere and the process, including scanning, restarts the next day. If there is room, the package is placed onto a truck. But sometimes full trucks are left all day at the warehouse waiting for drivers. That restarts the scanning and delivery process for those packages. 

What about the lucky packages that do make it onto moving trucks? Drivers are now being asked to reach more than two times the number of average locations than usual, from 150 to 300 a day on average, according to UPS employee sources, guaranteeing they won’t make all deliveries. Those packages take a joy ride and return to the warehouse. The next day, they get rescanned and the process starts all over again.

The package backup was so severe in Oakland two weeks ago that workers estimate up to 100 big trailers, each containing at least 1,000 packages, were waiting to be opened for the first time. After weekend overtime work and management help from other local hubs for two straight weekends, UPS employees said the number in Oakland has gone down significantly. Still, one worker estimated the Oakland hub was two to three days behind even while processing 30,000 packages per hour. 

Customers are fed up with the confusion. “When I ask to speak to a supervisor, they say, ‘The package is out for delivery.’ And I go through the litany every day, [getting] texts, following the link to the truck, watching the truck drive through the neighborhood, seeing the driver on my street. So I don’t miss him and say, ‘Where’s my package?’ He doesn’t have it,” Mike said. 

As UPS deliveries pile up, a scramble to catch up

Lack of coronavirus preparedness has similarly affected many companies around the world, especially those employing essential workers like UPS. Breakdowns in supply chains of industries as different as meat-packing and silicon production, for example, have forced shifts in strategy and production processes

And of course, the pandemic has led to life-threatening shortages of PPE, ventilators, and viral tests. At UPS, workers were forced to take on a massive influx of work in mid-March without improved safety precautions. As other reports have found and as we have confirmed, UPS warehouses were not given antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, or masks early on. 

“Many of the drivers have to touch everything and go into people’s homes,” one driver told us. In an online forum for UPS drivers called BrownCafe, another explained having to go into work early to wipe down truck surfaces with his own cleaning materials. In comparison, Amazon, which often contracts with UPS on deliveries, previously told Reuters it provides contracted drivers with hand sanitizer and wipes to help them to clean their vehicles. 

In late March, UPS announced specific safety guidelines for essential workers on top of agreeing to a 14-day paid-leave deal with unions for those who get sick or experience COVID-19 symptoms. That deal was a result of a coordinated worker-led emergency petition. Many can’t afford to miss work, though, forcing them into warehouses. 

That is why Marty Frates, the Secretary Treasurer of the local Oakland teamsters union governing UPS workers and the person who negotiates grievances, is putting pressure on UPS to slow down the number of packages coming through the warehouse. He says management is not listening.  

“The volume of packages has increased and UPS was not prepared for it,” he said in an interview. “There is neglect in hiring [leading to] delay in the service. They should only process volume through distribution they can deliver. And they should notify the customer.” 

Some workers say they’re being pushed too hard, leading to stress on their mental health and on their bodies. “They’re out there busting their ass,” Frates said. 

UPS workers say the company needs to hire more employees in the Bay Area, and a UPS representative told us that’s in the works. But they also agree with management’s assertion that it takes at least two weeks of computer training and six weeks on the job to fully train a new driver and that new coronavirus protections are making that harder, with fewer managers available to sit with new recruits inside the same truck. 

What worries Frates the most, though, is that substandard recent service could lead to customers dropping UPS, leading to lower revenue and giving the company an excuse to lay people off. 

“Trying to make money sometimes overcomes common sense. And common sense is developing a relationship with the customer that they understand,” Frates says.

Several UPS customers say they’re increasingly seeing the opposite. One Oakland mathematician told The Oaklandside she was loudly yelled at over the phone, questioning her version of events. 

Biotech designer Dan Berman says he was sent on wild goose chases. Berman was among a handful of people who got fed up talking on the phone and went to the Pardee warehouse on Monday, June 22nd, to see if he could get his packages in person. The expedition led nowhere. 

He stood in line for 20 minutes and talked to people who said they had waited for hours, and, when they got to the front, were told their package couldn’t be located. “They’ll say, sorry, ‘We don’t have it’ or ‘We can’t find it,’” Berman was told. So, he gave up and left. 

Berman says he would have used a different service from the start if he knew he’d have to deal with delays for weeks. He says the situation has affected his business, which relies on receiving 3D prototypes. The more he speaks to drivers out in the field, though, the more he feels it’s not their fault.  

“They’re all super nice, and it’s a tough position for them to be in,” said Berman. “The problem is a high-up logistics thing, which is upsetting to me because they’re one of the biggest logistics operations in the world and they’ve had months to prepare.”

UPS workers we spoke with say the last month has been particularly demoralizing. They feel they can’t catch up despite working crushing hours, and a good number of customers still get mad at them because they are the public face of the problem. 

“I had a rough weekend,” said one driver on Sunday. “I worked more than sixty hours last week in five days. I don’t feel like I made any progress. I felt like Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption, with the tiny pickaxe digging a hole in the wall to escape. It’s a huge mountain of deliveries to climb.”

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.