My father arrived home from his job as a UPS driver just before 11 p.m. Without greeting anybody, he unlaced his work boots and took off his brown company-issued button down shirt.
“Long day again?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Another long one.”
He walked into the kitchen of our Holtsville home and set his duffle bag on the floor next to the table. Although the lunchbox within it was no longer filled with his turkey sandwich, banana and water bottles, the bag was heavier than when he left the house that morning. The day’s spoils were a jar of homemade honey, two bags of cookies, and another hand-sewn face mask – gifts that customers left outside their homes as thank yous.
He sat at the table and ate the steak dinner my mother had prepared hours before. It was cold now, as were the green beans and baked potato served on the side. Usually, my parents would catch up on “The Voice” or “American Idol” before going to bed, but my mother had already fallen asleep, and my father had to be at the UPS center in Farmingville at 9 a.m. He showered, and went to bed.
Like many others in the delivery industry, my father is considered an essential worker. Even before the coronavirus, the country relied far too much on delivered goods and services to operate without them. The pandemic has only inflated this need. Stores are closed, people are quarantined, and shipments are in high demand.
“Normally around this time of year, we’d definitely be busy, but not super busy,” Dave Carew, a UPS driver, said. “But now, it’s like another Christmas.”
Carew is 40 years old, with a stocky build and a buzzcut. He spends most of the day in his brown uniform, as he has for the six years he has worked as a driver. He’s been delivering packages to Shelter Island five days a week – Tuesday to Saturday every week for the past two years. With the increased number of packages the company has been handling, he’s been working longer hours. He usually gets back to the Farmingville warehouse at about 7 or 8 p.m., but now it’s rare to get there earlier than 9 p.m. These nearly 12-hour shifts are common for drivers during the holiday season, but not in the middle of spring.
“They’re working 10 times harder than the regular peak season,” Tracy Marotta, a part-time supervisor, said. “The volume of packages has tripled… it’s like Santa Claus threw up.”
Carew’s days start with the hour-and-a-half drive from the Farmingville UPS center to the Shelter Island ferry in Greenport. On a busy day, he can spend more than 30 minutes waiting in line to get onto the ferry. Now, between a chilly, wet spring and the coronavirus lockdown, busy days are rare. Sometimes, he’s the only one on the ferry.
Once he arrives on Shelter Island, Carew starts making his deliveries. Before the coronavirus, his route included about 100 stops. Now, it’s 150 stops, with about 250 packages. Almost all those stops are residential because the businesses he delivers to are temporarily closed due to the quarantine.
Depending on where he is on the island, this can mean making a dozen back-to-back stops on the same street, or driving for 10 minutes up a narrow dirt road surrounded by steep hills and deep woods, all just to get to one secluded home.
In his time delivering packages on Shelter Island, Carew has formed relationships with some residents. One family of three that moved to Shelter Island a little over a year ago met him before they had met any of their neighbors.
“We formed a friendship over the last year and a half,” Carew said. “They always come out to say hi. The little girl draws me pictures.”
They still see Carew, but now they don’t dare to tread much farther than their front porch. Their conversations have turned into distanced small talk and waves. The same goes for all Carew’s customers – the farmers who meet him when he gets off the ferry to pick up their deliveries before everyone else, the family that moved from New York City to get away from the urban environment, and the fisherman and his son who always find time for conversations.
Now, in addition to social distancing, Carew doesn’t see them as often because there are more deliveries to make. Usually, only one truck makes the rounds every day – two if it’s busy. Now there are three or four trucks being sent every day to compensate for the extra volume. He doesn’t necessarily deliver to his regular stops anymore, and even on an island with only eight confirmed cases of the coronavirus, customers on Carew’s route are wary about leaving their homes.
“I’ve had conversations with a fence between a customer wearing a mask,” he said. “The island’s only so big, you run into each other a lot… but I see less people now.”
Unlike Carew, my father doesn’t have a specific route. Instead, he’s given whatever routes need a driver for that day. Sometimes this means delivering in Shirley for five months while the regular driver is recovering from surgery, and sometimes it means covering for Carew when he takes a vacation day. Lately, he’s been in one of the extra trucks assigned to Shelter Island. Even though he’s not a regular driver there, some of the residents still recognize him.
“Coffee’s on us, Lou,” an Eagle Deli employee says as my father pours a coffee after dropping off packages. “Here, have a muffin, too.”
“People in general are just a lot nicer out here than they are anywhere else,” Carew said.
Despite having drivers like my father who can fill in extra routes, the Farmingville UPS center is still understaffed. Under regular circumstances, when things are busy, the company would hire helpers to ride with drivers and assist them with dropping off packages. But now, helpers are a liability. Like anyone else, they could be carrying the coronavirus, and that puts drivers at risk. Social distancing isn’t possible when each truck only accommodates two people right next to each other.
Drivers have also been harder to come by. Some have been put in mandatory quarantine by UPS after coming in contact with the virus, and others have voluntarily quarantined. Even in Carew’s district building, some drivers have tested positive and weren’t able to work for a prescribed time.
Hiring more drivers isn’t an option, either. UPS typically takes on additional drivers during the holiday season, but even if the company expanded its workforce right now, each driver has to be trained for at least a week. There are no full-time supervisors available to train newbies, as they, too, are out making deliveries to pick up the slack. And even if they weren’t, they’d have to be close to each other in the truck, putting them both at risk.
“We don’t have the manpower,” Marotta said, describing drivers as “overloaded and exhausted, both physically and mentally. . . .At one point, we had to borrow drivers from other buildings.”
Most of these borrowed drivers come from the Long Island City UPS center, where deliveries have actually been somewhat lighter. Most deliveries from that center are made to businesses that are temporarily closed.
Drivers aren’t the only ones feeling the burden. So-called pre-loaders, the part-time employees who pack the trucks every morning, are also working longer, harsher hours. During the holiday season, pre-loaders often start work at about 1 a.m., sometimes earlier, and don’t finish packing trucks until 9 or 10 a.m. The number of packages that need to be loaded into the approximately 240 trucks that operate out of the Farmingville center varies every day, but lately, it’s been about 100,000. Each pre-loader is required to pack at least three trucks a day, and is expected to do it at a rate of 240 packages per hour.
“I’m glad I got out when I did,” Vincent Coletta, a former pre-loader at the Farmingville center, said. He quit his job last December and doesn’t miss his overnight shift that usually started at 11:30 p.m., and ended at 9:30 a.m. the next day.
Even Marotta’s job, which mostly involves deskwork, has become more exhausting. There aren’t enough part-time supervisors to handle the increased workload. Marotta spends much of her day answering phone calls from customers who haven’t received their packages yet, mostly because of shipping delays that happen before packages even arrive at UPS.
“We’re getting all the calls from customers and trying to be calm, and letting everyone know that during the pandemic, we’re doing the best we can to accommodate everyone, because every package is essential,” Marotta said. “It feels like everything that comes into the building is already a day late.”
The extended hours have made life at home hard for Marotta. She had a death in the family and took off a few days, so now she has to work even more shifts to make up for her leave. On top of that, she’s been trying to help her children deal with distance learning since their schools are closed.
“I’m a single mother,” she said. “Thank god I have a family member that lives here. Now I gotta come home and do school work with a second grader and a seventh grader. We’re fortunate enough to still have a job and we’re still getting paid.”
She also spends more time than ever organizing pick-up orders. Before the coronavirus locked everyone inside, customers would drop off return packages at UPS offices, Amazon stores, and various kiosks. Now, either because these drop-off locations have closed or because people don’t want to leave their homes, they’re relying on UPS drivers like Carew to pick up their returns. This adds even more stops to drivers’ routes.
Carew’s job has changed in other ways, too. He now leaves the office wearing a blue face mask and gloves that contrast with his brown uniform. He uses hand sanitizer after every few stops. He takes a short break after about 20 stops to disinfect his steering wheel and dashboard with Clorox Wipes that he purchases with his own money. Sometimes, customers request that he doesn’t come near their front doors, and just leave the packages by their mailboxes. All these things are true for my dad and other UPS drivers, too.
“All in all, I think we’ve been lucky in my building,” Carew said. “Well, I don’t want to say lucky, but we’ve taken precautions to mitigate the spread.”
While there’s less direct interaction, customers have found ways to show appreciation for their UPS drivers. Some people leave letters and notes. A beekeeper offered jars of artisanal honey like the one my dad brought home. A baker filled Ziplock bags with homemade cookies and biscotti. A few people have left hand-sewn personal protective equipment. Children write “THANK YOU” in huge letters with chalk on their driveways and sidewalks.
“When shit hits the fan, people kinda get together and gather around the people that are helping each other,” Carew said. “It’s kinda the same feeling as 9/11. When you have a group of people who are affected by something, people tend to gather together.”
Like my dad, Carew brings his daily spoils home and shares them with his family, all of whom are essential workers. His wife, Kristen, is a manager at Blackbirds Grille in Sayville, where some staff has been laid off and those who remain are only filling take-out orders. His son, Noah, is a high school senior who works part-time at another Sayville eatery, Cafe Joelle, where he buses and makes deliveries. Everyone in the Carew household spends most of their days behind face masks, trying to avoid direct contact with customers. Noah even changes his clothes after handling money from customers.
At the end of his day, Carew makes the hour-and-a-half trek from Shelter Island back to the UPS building in his now-empty truck. He arrives late, to a parking lot that’s mostly full. Dozens of drivers are still out even later than he is.
He walks past a corkboard crowded with notes and letters from children offering their support and encouragement. He doesn’t make much small talk with his coworkers on these longer days. Nobody does. Some of them are distancing, but most of them are like my dad at the end of a shift. They are just too tired.