Without the temporary employment of extra drivers over the holidays, UPS wouldn’t be able to make half of its deliveries, not to mention business pick-ups. That's what lured me into a temporary job with the company for the month of December — well, that and the extra cash. Living in my hometown of Burlington, Vermont, I went from struggling writer to delivery person. Every day, I worked an average of 8 to 10 hours, constantly getting in and out of the truck, carrying heavy boxes, and trying not to slip in the snow. My senior driver, Bob, and I walked more than five miles during each shift. I’ve never slept so well in my life.
At this point during the winter in Vermont, the sun begins to set mid-shift, so half of the deliveries must be made in the dark, making the icy conditions even more treacherous. Many customers who work all day don’t have a chance to shovel or plow a path for a vehicle to get close to the house, which, for us, meant walking up long, steep driveways to reach homes.
On more than one occasion, we were stuck out in the snow and had to call for a tow. On one such afternoon, one week into my tenure, Bob pulled over into a snow bank to make room on a minimally-plowed road for an oncoming SUV, and we got stuck.
In the back of the truck we had almost 200 undelivered packages on shelves. Tucked underneath the bottom shelf near the rear door sat a large bin that contained sand bags and chains specifically for this type of situation. I got out and tucked my hands under my armpits to keep them warm. Although I was layered with thermals and fleece underneath my UPS jacket that has been issued to me for exactly one week, it was 14 degrees outside.
I started to eye the houses to see if anyone emerged to offer assistance or to invite us in to warm our frozen fingers by a crackling fire, even though we wouldn’t have time. This hiccup would put us 30 minutes behind schedule as it was. Constantly trying to beat the clock is the life of a UPS driver.
"At least you’ll have something to write about," Bob joked as he wrapped the chains around one of the rear tires.
"No, how the UPS man lost his temper," he laughed.
"I was actually just thinking about how well you are handling this, given the circumstances," I say as he finishes hooking the chain.
Bob — a lifetime Vermonter with four children — took off his hat to smooth his white hair before starting the truck for another try. I’m amazed at how quickly he moved compared to most men his age; then again, UPS drivers have to be nimble if they want to deliver their entire load during the government-regulated 12 hours of driving they are allowed in one shift.
He hit the gas while I stood at a safe distance and watched the rear tires sink deeper into the snow bank. I wasn't surprised when he stepped out of the truck, took one look at the tires, and reached for his cell phone.
"We’re going to need a tow," he said, starting to dial for help. "Hey, it’s Bob. Yep, I’m on Pineshore," he said without having to explain.
The typical northern New England weather in late December does indeed create an obstacle for a ground delivery person, but there’s also human error, the sheer amount of work to be done (the day I was hired, the main facility processed a record 29,000 packages), wrong addresses, rural roads that don’t show up on the GPS and, finally, the family dog.
Bob has had his fair share of growls and barks, but I was amazed at how many times he’s actually been bitten — too many to count, in fact. And sure enough, my last day, after seven hours, 200 packages and 125 stops, a brown Pomeranian, whose owner assured me, "Don’t worry; he won’t bite," nipped at my left leg but didn't make it through the first layer of pants.
"Never believe them when they say the dogs won’t bite," was Bob’s solid advice, as well as what Frank from HR told us during orientation. Both were right.
When the tow truck arrived, Bob and the other driver joked about how we got stuck because Bob pulled over for someone else. "That’s what you get for being nice, Bob," the driver said in a thick Vermont accent and matching sarcasm. It was an irony not lost on me.
After working with Bob, I realized why UPS is one of United States Postal Services's top competitors: Customers can always count on the courtesy of drivers like Bob, even if he’s had to pull out the chains twice and been bitten by a dog before arriving at the door with a smile. And by the end of the week, I had one thing to say to the millions of online shoppers out there: Be nice to your UPS drivers, because you never know what kind of day they’ve had.