The headline was 'Killer flu samples shipped via FedEx, DHL'

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/04/16 13:30 -04:00, original URI:

Nothing technical in this post!

The headline that brought back a lot of memories for me was on MSNBC on Thursday was indeed Killer flu samples shipped via FedEx, DHL. Not quite flashbacks but maybe a tamer version of them.

You see, I actually worked (in a past life) as a part-time contract package handler in the Hartford hub for RPS (Roadway Package Systems) which was eventually bought out by FedEx to become FedEx Ground. When I was working for them was like ten years ago, so all of memories of the place may be obsolete. Fair warning!

The work was part time so they did not have to give health insurance to package handlers, and they managed to keep the unions out. Good honest work.

I do remember the shoddy way most packages were handled, the way companies would send ten packages with flourescent bulbs since they expected nine of them would get busted. But no one messed around with the boxes marked hazardous. Mainly because no matter how dumb a person is, they are not that dumb, you know?

For a lot of the time, I was guy handling the small packages, sorting them in to various bins. It is a definite promotion, not in terms of money but in terms of benefits -- I no longer had to lift 100 pound packages in trucks that heated up to as much as 100° for four hours. A definite benefit, I can promise you.

Of course I do not have to wonder how easy it would have been to smuggle somehing out of there; security guards were not brilliant and although they would notice people obviously crating packages out, they were not grabbing one's crotch or ankles or whatever and if one were willing to put something there for the trip to to the car then they probably wouldn't have noticed. I never did it but I remember there were people who bragged about doing it for various fun/novelty items. One got the feeling that 70% of them were bragging and had not taken anything, but that does leave 30% genuine theft. I could imagine someone doing it for something dangerous (though no one ever took credit for something like that!).

I certainly would not put something packed in dry ice marked hazardous anywhere on my person for any length of time at all. But not everyone was necessarily as smart.

I had a few friends who worked in the area where they fixed up the damaged packages, and every once in a while there would be damaged package marked hazardous -- everyone was careful then. The shift managers chose to number among the damaged packakes staff a young lady named Gina. In so doing, they (possibly intentionally) caused people to pay a lot more attention to the area, since being able to talk to a woman was kind of a novel thing for some of these guys and they always found excuses to bring packages to her. I even know of times that people would intentionally break packages so they could make that trip, though (a) they were supposed to set them aside so someone could pick them up an (b) Gina did not find dumb sweaty guys to be her cup of tea. In fact, a bunch of us used to go to a sports bar named The Penalty Box (so named because of a small penalty box that you had to sit in if you spilled a drink!). It was fun and a great unwinder where they used to do Karaoke there on Friday nights and it was pretty amusing when a group of us all got up to do Love Shack by the B-52s. I remember times that Gina told us what she thought of the whole setup at RPS. She thought it was insane the way people would go out of their way to talk to her by breaking boxes and such. It made a lot of sense to me though -- what better way for managment to get extra eyes on the people in the best position to take stuff out (the trailers always had 2-3 people unloading, even small packages had two people)?

I honestly doubt her and Rich would ever take a damn thing anyway. It was a place to put smart people, and both of them were smart. And I knew other women who worked there, one of them named Jen was even a roommate of mine for a while (just good friends looking to split rent, nothing sordid!), so I knew plenty of women there who would spend time in the big trucks (which to be perfectly frank, I never enjoyed much myself). I do have to admit it was interesting to see how such things could disrupt a workplace that did not know quite what to do with women. Maybe a little like parts of Microsoft now that I think about it, if you listen to the stories from the old days. :-)

Roadway Package Systems was an interesting place to work, and RPS was even more interesting as a company....

You see, Roadway Express was shipping merchandise to big department stores like G. Fox, and they had a bunch of old tandem trailers they wanted to upgrade. As a way to get rid of them, they spun off a sister company named Roadway Package Systems that was on paper set up to act as a corporate competitor to UPS. Of course in reality everyone expected the whole enterprise to fail, which would allow the tandem trailers to be written off. Who would ever have guessed that the UPS package handlers and truck drivers (both Teamsters Union-controlled) would have chosen this point to have a huge strike? RPS turned out against all expectations to do quite well targetting the coroporate space, probably suiuccessful enough that the Roadway Express execs did not mind losing their writeoff. When they bought new trailers for RPS a few years later, it was clear that they had moved on to accept the new reality. :-)

Anyway, to swing on back to FedEx (whose FedEx Ground was formerly RPS), I remember talking to people who had worked for FedEx, UPS, and all the others. The setup was pretty much the same in all these places, unionized or not. I can only hope that the security has gotten better considering all of the things that ship via these services, which was the point of concern in the MSNBC article, though not for the reasons I am concerned, as a former package handler who knows how little people cared about the packages. If someone is making $9.50 an hour (scaled back to circa 1990 wages, not sure what that would be now) and someone offers $10,000 for something out of a package, would a handler stand on principle, or take the money and run? I know I would not be stealing, but I also know that there were people who would bust open boxes costing the company who knows how much just to talk to an attractive woman so I doubt they would balk too much at making some gelt if they could find a way to do it.

I do hope the security is better now, especially thinking about virtulent strains of viruses and such. For all of our sakes....

# David Smith on 16 Apr 2005 12:02 PM:

Always interesting posts. =)

# Language Log on 17 Apr 2005 1:16 PM:

Are the vials half missing or half found? Actually, it's not 1/2 vs. 1/2, but rather something like 1/9 vs. 8/9, or perhaps about 20/4,700 vs. 4,680/4,700, but the principle is the same.

Michael S. Kaplan on 8 Apr 2006 5:33 PM:

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