The couriers at DHL Express in South Boston had been putting in 60-hour weeks for months, delivering packages to people growing increasingly reliant on their services as the pandemic spread. When DHL instituted Sunday overtime shifts to deal with soaring demand, many drivers balked, citing child-care conflicts and religious obligations, as well as general fatigue and a desire to spend time with their families. And when the company started handing out warnings to those who didn’t show up, the union assured the workers the company couldn’t require it.
But at the beginning of November, days after an arbitrator ruled that DHL could mandate Sunday shifts, the company abruptly fired 25 drivers.
The union, Teamsters Local 25, said DHL had promised not to discipline employees who had refused to work on Sundays before the ruling, and is appealing the terminations. But the couriers, many of whom did work a number of Sundays, are furious both with DHL and the union, which they said didn’t do enough to protect them — and cost them their jobs.
Had they known their livelihoods were on the line, workers said, they would have found a way to show up on Sundays, as they often do around the holidays, and would still have good union jobs with pensions, making $80,000 to $100,000 a year. The fired drivers — 24 men and one woman, many of whom started off as part-timers loading freight at night — said they were unfairly targeted, noting that other employees who refused Sunday shifts were not let go. Many didn’t receive warnings and suspensions before they were fired, as required in the contract.
“We were blindsided,” several workers said.
“It isn’t fair to any of us,” they wrote in an e-mail to Greg Hewitt, US DHL Express chief executive. “Us, the guys that delivered masks and crucial supplies to other essential workers during a very scary time around the world. Us, who it seems, spent more time at the warehouse, in our delivery vehicles, and with customers, than with our own families at home. Us, who week in, and week out, worked tirelessly to make sure that our customers got their product, when the world seemed to be falling apart.”
DHL would not discuss the terminations but noted: “As an essential employer during this global pandemic ... it is critical that DHL remains fully operational to provide needed pickup and delivery services for our customers. That includes requiring employees to work on some weekends.”
The union is filing another grievance with the American Arbitration Association focused on the terminations, which the first arbitration did not address. The union has also submitted the matter to a national grievance committee made up of DHL officials and Teamsters. “Local 25 will not rest until it has exhausted every legal avenue to have these employees reinstated,” said Sean O’Brien, president of Local 25, in an e-mail.
But the workers wish the Teamsters were raising more hell: Why aren’t they picketing in front of the DHL warehouse with an inflatable rat, a favorite tactic, for instance? Local 25 said the contract prohibits picketing, a fact the workers said the union had not shared with them. The union has not communicated with them much at all, in fact, the workers said, noting that O’Brien didn’t hold a meeting with them until more than a month after they were fired. The workers even went so far as to reach out to the National Labor Relations Board on their own.
The workers emphasize that they had good reasons to turn down Sunday shifts.
Greg Caizzi, 30, whose Cambridge route included stops at MIT, was advised by a counselor that he should continue spending Sundays at his mother’s house in Marshfield with his sisters and 2-year-old nephew to help alleviate his anxiety and depression.
Yves Conde, 34, has a court order to pick up his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son every other Friday night in Dorchester and drop them off on Sunday evenings; his 12-year-old son is also with him on those weekends.
Louis Joseph, 33, takes care of his 14-month-old baby on the weekends while his wife is at work at a Lexington nursing home. Joseph and the baby often attend church for a good part of the day on Sundays, too. But DHL never asked why he couldn’t work the extra shift, he said.
With Christmas approaching and their delivery skills in need, the workers have started applying for jobs at UPS, FedEx, Amazon Prime, and DoorDash, some of which have no benefits and pay considerably less than what they were making at DHL.
“That’s why we’re fighting,” Joseph said. “We had everything.”
DHL has been scrambling to keep up with demand, adding 28 full-time union couriers in Boston over an eight-month period, according to the arbitration ruling. In July, DHL proposed hiring new full-timers who could work regular weekend shifts without overtime pay, but the union turned it down, according to the ruling; soon after, the company started issuing disciplinary letters to workers. “The union believes that the company is trying to arbitrate what it could not negotiate,” the ruling states.
The company also brought on contractors — allowed under the contract if the workload is too much for union members — who delivered packages using their own cars, the fired drivers said. Delivery jobs are increasingly being performed by such independent contractors, said John Logan, a labor and employment studies professor at San Francisco State University. Union shops like UPS and DHL, the latter of which has decreased its domestic delivery operation in the United States in recent years, are “pushing against the tide” in trying to maintain full-time jobs with benefits for delivery drivers, he said: “Amazon just kind of casts a shadow over everything.”
Even if DHL were trying to cut back on union workers, Logan said, the company shouldn’t have fired employees who believed their actions were protected by a union contract. “If they continued to refuse Sunday work after the arbitration ruling, that could be grounds for discipline or termination,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect it to be automatic.”
Local 25 maintains that DHL pledged not to fire anyone regardless of the outcome of the arbitration, and the union took the company at its word. When a worried employee texted the union shop steward about a discharge letter he got in late July, he responded, “Going to be thrown out.” To another, the shop steward replied: “Don’t worry about it. ... They know they can’t discipline you guys. ... Company just trying to scare you guys. It is your choice if you want to come in.”
But when the workers reached out to Hewitt, the CEO, a few weeks ago, he contradicted this assertion. In a Dec. 1 e-mail, Hewitt responded: “The decision to terminate was made after the consistent refusal to work — not after the arbitrator’s decision was issued.”
A Boston union lawyer who reviewed the case said Local 25 may have been overconfident it was going to win. The union could have presented a much stronger case, including the reasons that people couldn’t work on Sundays, the lawyer said, and should have better informed workers about the arbitration proceedings.
Indeed, O’Brien, the Local 25 president, said in an e-mail: “The expected outcome was the union would prevail in arbitration.”
Fabrice Tavares, who couldn’t work Sundays due to a court-ordered custody arrangement and was fired after three years on the job, sees the mass firing as a “scare tactic” by DHL. And like the others, he’s incredulous the union didn’t do more to protect them.
“If any of us thought we could lose a great job ... we would have all found a way to come in on Sundays,” he said. “But we thought we were safe.”