ATLANTA -- While much of the business world winds down around the end of the year, easing back for office parties and long lunches, some corners of the U.S. economy are in hyper drive. One is UPS, the biggest package delivery company in the world.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, deliveries to homes soar, especially as more people shop online. UPS expects to deliver more than 21 million packages worldwide today, its busiest day of the year. That's 40 percent more than the daily flood of packages UPS usually handles.
To avoid a corporatewide hernia, UPS hires 60,000 seasonal workers. Still, the company often pays truckloads of overtime to its regular drivers. Rival FedEx does things differently; its deliveries, like those of the U.S. Postal Service, peaked on Monday. FedEx added only a few thousand workers to its payroll this holiday season. Its system is built around independent contractor drivers who decide how to handle the rush. Some hire helpers with their own money.
At UPS, the Christmas rush scrambles life throughout the company. No one is supposed to take vacation between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not even managers at corporate headquarters. Office supervisors often are assigned special holiday duties, such as teaching four-hour orientation classes to temporary helpers.
Such was the scene last week at a UPS center in Roswell, Ga., as 16 mostly 20-something temps sat quietly around a conference table. How should they stop an attacking dog? Block them with the hand-held electronic package scanner, called a DIAD board. What is the UPS prescribed way for getting on a package car? Grab a handrail, step up with the opposite leg and step in.
UPS supplies recruits with uniforms, but the cadets have to bring some items.
"Undergarments," said a training instructor wearing a business suit. "White or brown. We don't need anything pink or red or green."
He clarified that the rule applied to undergarments normally visible during the workday, such as around necklines and sleeve ends. "You've got to represent UPS out there," he said.
Another instructor cautioned recruits to expect a workout.
"You are industrial athletes," he said.
On the road
On the road, Doug Williamson, 39, is a calm, Christmas-tune-whistling driver who has put in 19 years with UPS. For the past nine years he's worked a route that includes a mile-long stretch of Roswell Road in Marietta, Ga., and a maze of residential neighborhoods nearby, with perhaps 450 or more potential stops.
"I would say I've delivered to everybody," he says.
During the Christmas rush, UPS assigns all of Williamson's commercial stops - nearly half his route - to another driver. That leaves Williamson to handle the residential stuff. Still, his number of daily stops soars from about 140 to about 280. And by today he expects to hit nearly 400. His workday, which usually starts at 7:45 a.m. and goes to 6:30 p.m., now stretches to 8:30 p.m. or later.
UPS is considered to be obsessive about efficiency. Company engineers, for example, have determined that it takes 18.6 seconds to properly stop the truck, locate the right package and exit the package car. (They don't call it a truck.)
Williamson's stopping procedure is unconsciously smooth. Brake. Honk to notify the homeowner. Shift gears. Put on the emergency brake and hit the hazard lights. Remove the key and slip it on his pinky. Undo the seat belt.
"Always keep your eyes ahead of your work," he said, pointing out the front window, "where you look out for kids."
During the holiday rush, efficiencies get scrambled. Boxes that usually sit on truck shelves in the proper order for delivery sometimes end up in an overflow jumble on the floor. There are boxes of steaks, hams, skin creams, Williams-Sonoma kitchenware, cheese platters, popcorn tins and Tahitian noni juice. Williamson repeatedly pushes boxes aside to find the ones he needs for his next stops.
One cardboard box with bashed sides is from The Popcorn Factory.
"You do what you got to do to make it look presentable," Williamson says, as he tries to straighten the box.
Residential package delivery, it turns out, is all about angles. What's the fastest route from the truck to the house? Take it, even if it means scrambling through landscaped areas or stepping over the wires of Christmas lights.
Homeowners "don't care. They just want their packages," Williamson says.
After a short period in the package cars, regular UPS drivers, all of them members of the Teamsters, get about $27 an hour. Add overtime and they can make more than $65,000 a year. Helpers make $8.50 an hour locally and don't get benefits.
Like drivers, seasonal helpers have to be able and willing to lift boxes weighing up to 70 pounds.
But the job is taking a toll. His knees are bothering him, and he sometimes tenses up thinking about what will await him during the holiday rush.
Williamson says he'd like to work for UPS until he retires. But then he pauses and adds, "I don't know if I could do many more Christmases."