Delivering the Message
For Angelica Harris, working for United Parcel Service seemed like the perfect job.
A single mother with a two-year-old daughter, Harris was looking for a part-time job that would allow her to spend some of the day with her child while providing benefits for her. A help-wanted ad for UPS caught her eye, offering work on the night shift at $8 per hour, medical, dental and vision insurance and two weeks' paid vacation.
In the fall of 1995, Harris started working at UPS's massive sorting facility in Commerce City as the only female in her department. An attractive 24-year-old, Harris immediately caught the eye of several of her co-workers, who offered to buy her soft drinks from the vending machine and asked for her phone number. She politely turned down their requests.
At the end of her second week, she was approached by a co-worker who had somehow discovered her full name, knew where she lived and had her Social Security number. Harris was alarmed, since it seemed obvious he had been reading her employment file.
"I was freaked out," she recalls. "I told my supervisor and he just laughed. He said, 'He just likes you.'"
Harris became even more uncomfortable when another co-worker began following her into the parking lot at the end of her shift. He would corner her and ask if she was single, what she did before she came to work, who she lived with. This went on for several nights, and when Harris complained, "my supervisor told me I should be flattered so many men were interested in me."
As the months went by, Harris's colleagues on the night shift grew more bold. While a manager was standing next to her, one man walked up to Harris, looked her up and down, told her she should be a stripper and asked what kind of panties she was wearing. The supervisor laughed and walked away, remembers Harris.
An anonymous employee even posted a pornographic drawing of Harris performing oral sex on a male figure's penis, which was depicted as a giant hot dog. She complained but says none of the supervisors seemed to take it seriously. "I had one supervisor tell me I should find another job because I was too pretty to work there," says Harris.
As she continued to protest the way she was being treated -- even filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- her co-workers grew more hostile. The employee who followed her was disciplined, but several other employees blamed Harris for getting him in trouble and left anonymous notes calling her a "cunt."
"Then the harassment got ten times worse," says Harris. "I worked on a conveyor belt, and there were three guys who worked with me. They'd tell dirty jokes to see if I would get mad. They'd use the words 'cunt' or 'bitch' or 'pussy.' They knew that really bugged me."
Even her trips to the bathroom were monitored, Harris says. "I would have a supervisor standing outside of the bathroom timing me while I went. He'd be yelling at me, and everybody would be laughing. They'd say, 'She must be on the rag.'"
Harris says the harassment became a daily occurrence. "I'd have guys ask me if I spit or swallowed and if being a single mom made me easier than other women," says Harris, weeping at the memory. "I had my daughter, and I really wanted to quit, but I honestly couldn't. At that point, I was really broke and living with my mom and dad, and I needed the benefits."
Since UPS is one of the few employers that give full benefits to part-timers, Harris says many women simply decide to tolerate the abuse.
Now Harris has joined 32 other current and former female UPS employees in Colorado who are suing the company, alleging that UPS systematically harasses and discriminates against female workers in its Rocky Mountain district, which includes Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
In May the lawyers representing the women asked U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch to give the suit class-action status, meaning UPS could be held liable if a jury finds that it has consistently discriminated against its 4,000 current or former female employees since 1996. Women make up only about 9 percent of the company's workforce in the Rocky Mountain region.
For its part, UPS insists that experiences like those alleged by Harris are isolated and that the company isn't a hostile place for women to work. The huge Atlanta-based delivery firm also sees itself as a target for money-hungry trial attorneys.
"There's no question some folks look at UPS as a financially stable company that is doing quite well," says UPS spokeswoman Peggy Gardner. "Large companies are reviewed more closely [for discrimination] than small ones because the financial potential is greater."
Gardner says she can't comment on the lawsuit, but she believes UPS has an above-average record when it comes to encouraging diversity in the workplace. She says the company has made it clear to managers and employees at every level that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated.
"Our primary message is that fairness, respect and dignity is what everyone should expect when they're a UPS employee," says Gardner. "The company is committed to that kind of workplace environment."
Whether or not the experiences of women like Harris are unusual, UPS is now being sued by women and minorities in several states. The company recently agreed to settle a racial-discrimination suit in California for $12.1 million, and an Iowa woman was awarded $82 million in a harassment suit last year by a jury that said it wanted to send UPS a message.
Harris and the other plaintiffs in the Colorado suit hope to do the same thing. They hold the company responsible for making a big part of their lives miserable, and they want UPS to pay for it.
Several of the women now suing UPS say they enjoy what they do -- working outdoors, being a part of customers' lives, driving on country roads. "It's a hard, physical job, but I loved my customers," says Debra Klee, a 43-year-old Sterling woman who worked for UPS for nearly twenty years. "I'd be at the stock show, and thirty people would recognize me."
Especially in rural areas, jobs with UPS are highly prized. Full-time drivers can earn $50,000 a year, and the company's benefits are excellent.
Klee was one of the few female employees at the small UPS center in Sterling, and for eighteen years she was the only female driver. She started as a part-time, on-call driver and eventually became full-time. From day one, she says, her co-workers made it clear they didn't like working with a woman.
"Years later I found out that when I started, there was a bet as to how long I would last," says Klee. "It was like a nightmare from the get-go."
While most of the male drivers were assigned to regular routes, Klee says she was given a vast territory that covered four northeastern Colorado counties with destinations that changed on a daily basis.
"I think they wanted to make me quit," she says. "I'd get home at night and be totally exhausted. I'd be driving 90 miles per hour on a dirt road because I was so far behind, and I'd never stop or take breaks."
Plain brown boxes from a North Carolina company that sells sex toys had a way of mysteriously showing up in her truck, their contents -- which included dildos and X-rated videos -- strewn around the van. "It was only those packages that came open and wound up in my truck," says Klee. "The supervisor said, 'It's just guys -- there's nothing I can do about it.'"
Even worse, Klee claims she was insulted regularly by a manager who seemed to enjoy degrading her and making her cry.
"He told me, 'Do you realize you can't get a job that compares to this anywhere in Sterling? I have twenty men waiting to get in the door at UPS. They're waiting outside right now, and they'll take your job in a minute,'" recalls Klee.
The worst point in her career at the company, says Klee, was when she told her boss she was pregnant and would give birth at the end of November 1988, just as the all-important holiday peak period got under way.
"He turned around and said, 'What in the hell...Do you realize what you're going to do to my fucking peak?' Then he says, 'Have you ever thought about getting rid of it?' I said, 'Do you realize what you just said to me?' Every time I'm with my daughter, I still remember the look on his face and him talking about his 'fucking peak.'"
Klee seriously injured her shoulder two years ago while trying to single-handedly unload a 120-pound box. She says work rules mandated that she was supposed to have help with such a load, but no one offered. Eventually she had to undergo surgery, and that was the end of her career at UPS. (Pamela Rapplean, another co-plaintiff who once worked at the Sterling center, says in an affidavit filed with the court that she was transferred to Sterling because "it was well-known that male employees were hostile to females" there. She is currently a manager with UPS in Boulder.)
Maxine Horwitz started working part-time as a driver for UPS in Silverthorne in 1986. "I had dated a UPS driver, and I thought it would be kind of fun for a while," she says. "I went to the interview at Job Service, and they hired me right there."
According to Horwitz, who is 42, her center manager made it clear he did not want to hire a woman as a driver but was told by higher-ups that he had to. She says that the harassment she was subjected to was ongoing and that male co-workers called her a "cunt," "fucking bitch," "whore" and "dumb Jew" without ever being disciplined.
In addition to the profanity and insults, Horwitz says male employees who disliked her peed on the seat of her UPS truck, rubbed dirty diapers on her car and deflated the tires, and put sewing needles in her work boots.
Instead of punishing her harassers, says Horwitz, the manager at the center tried to fire her several times. The first time was when she delivered a package to a pizza joint and the sassy employee who took the box told her his name was "Mr. Eat Shit," which Horwitz entered on her log. The manager terminated her for this, but her Teamsters union representative pointed out that several drivers in other cities had written down the same thing and had only been suspended for a few days. Horwitz was able to keep her job.
The most recent time her boss fired her, he accused her of instigating "violence in the workplace."
Horwitz says a clerk she had always been friends with at the center, Susan Rose, was in a bad mood one night when the office was especially crowded and hectic. "She brushed by me with a box; I started to fall down and reacted by shoving her back." The incident was over in seconds, and the two women remained friends. "I knew she didn't mean it," says Horwitz.
But the women were accused of engaging in workplace violence and terminated. Horwitz says she and Rose (who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit) were shocked at the accusation of violence, since two men at the center had thrown fits, punched a wall and kicked a door off its hinges without being disciplined. Horwitz even witnessed a fistfight one morning between the union steward and a manager. "The two guys still work there, even though they got into a fight," she says.
After going through the union grievance process, Horwitz was reinstated but given a sixty-day suspension.
Liz Blasio, a former manager for UPS in Montrose and Gunnison, has also joined the lawsuit. Blasio alleges that UPS refused to back her up in confrontations with male employees, including one driver who told her he would not obey her because she was a "goddamned woman."
"The atmosphere is that it's a man's world and women shouldn't be in it," says the 43-year-old Blasio. "Women are not respected or welcomed."
When Blasio complained about insubordination from her male employees, her superiors in UPS management told her she should "suck it up and handle it" herself. Even in management meetings, says Blasio, her colleagues "used foul language and made sexual gestures toward women."
Blasio also contends that her allegations of harassment weren't followed up by the UPS human resources department. "They didn't take harassment complaints seriously," she says.
This is a key allegation in the lawsuit, which was filed by Denver attorneys Lynn Feiger and Madeline Collison in August 1997. In order for a company to be held liable for harassment and discrimination, it must be shown that the plaintiff's complaints were ignored. Even though the Colorado case likely won't go to trial until sometime next year, both sides have already filed reams of documents, including extensive depositions from UPS human resource managers who insisted that they do take allegations of harassment and discrimination seriously.
"Every employee is encouraged to talk to their immediate supervisor about any concerns," says UPS spokeswoman Gardner. "On top of that, there's a formal employee dispute-resolution program and a code of business conduct. We also maintain a toll-free 1-800 number which allows employees to report any conduct not in line with company policies."
Gardner notes that UPS has a huge workforce and that many of the conflicts in American society can emerge on the job. "You don't have 300,000 employees -- the size of a mid-sized American city -- and not experience some of the social issues you'd get in a city that size," she says.
The lawsuit also claims that the percentage of full-time female employees at UPS is decreasing and that women are terminated at a higher rate than men. In court documents, UPS has countered that most of those terminations were voluntary and that the lower number of women in coveted full-time positions is due to seniority requirements for promotions.
Harris and the others challenging UPS see it differently. "They want you to quit; they want to get to you," says Harris. "They see you as some weak person who can't cut the mustard."
UPS employees have a saying that true company stalwarts "bleed brown," a reference to UPS's well-known corporate color. Working late on Christmas Eve and putting in fourteen-hour days during the holidays are just part of that ethic, and Harris says anyone who complains about discrimination is seen as not bleeding the right colors. "If you're true UPS, you bleed brown," she says. "They'd always ask me, 'Don't you bleed brown?' It's like you're part of the team; you're willing to do anything."
Her male co-workers would never accept the idea that a woman could be part of their team, says Klee. After calling her union steward for help, Klee says he simply told her, "Deb, I have a lot of friends who'd like to work there."
She felt completely isolated in the Sterling center, without anyone to back her up or offer support. "What was I supposed to do?" she asks. "I was all alone in the middle of nowhere."
For years, UPS was one of the most respected businesses in the country, its chocolate-brown delivery trucks a symbol of American know-how and efficiency. But a series of discrimination lawsuits and multi-million-dollar verdicts against UPS has put the employment practices of this national institution on trial.
Earlier this year, UPS agreed to pay $12.1 million to settle a racial-discrimination suit brought against the company on behalf of 12,000 part-time black employees on the West Coast. The suit alleged that UPS denied promotions, higher pay and more hours to black employees even when they had more experience than the whites who were allowed to advance.
Hundreds of black employees in the firm's Oakland, California, district came forward with tales of racism and hostile working conditions, claiming that African-Americans were required to make deliveries in the most dangerous neighborhoods and were taunted as "boys" and "monkeys" by other employees. They said their complaints to UPS managers were ignored, and some of them were subjected to harassment after they objected to the company's practices.
Last year the federal government joined a class-action lawsuit against UPS in St. Louis, alleging the company discriminated against mid-level black managers in promotions. Similar suits have been filed by black supervisors in Milwaukee and black delivery drivers in Las Vegas.
Last fall a Georgia woman who worked as an assistant to a UPS executive sued the company for $3 million, alleging that her former boss had offered her gifts, cash, and the use of his private jet if she would allow her two daughters, both in their twenties, to become his "mistresses." The woman, Diane Latone, also claimed that her boss had offered to house her daughters in a condominium he owned. She says the company took no action when she complained about the behavior.
The most shocking verdict against UPS was the record-setting $82 million awarded last year to a Des Moines, Iowa, woman. Linda Channon, a longtime employee of the company, said she had been sexually harassed by a colleague who repeatedly poked her in the breast and that the company retaliated against her after she complained. A judge later reduced the award to $500,000, but he described UPS as a "male- oriented company" and said Channon had been "the victim of a vicious and sexually motivated assault."
Channon had spent 22 years at the company and worked her way up to a high-level management position, says her attorney, Roxanne Conlin. "She was the victim of egregious sexual harassment. One of the managers literally kidnapped her and drove her into the country and said she had to have sex with him."
After Channon intervened in a fight between two employees, Conlin says, one of them threatened her and stalked her until she left the company. Even worse, adds Conlin, UPS never took Channon's repeated complaints seriously but instead blamed her for making an issue of the harassment.
Conlin says the Des Moines jury was a salt-of-the-earth group of Midwesterners who were so outraged by what they heard that they decided to make an example of the company. "The jury felt that without a strong sign to UPS, nothing would change," she says. "Ordinary human beings whose blood doesn't bleed brown think this is nuts."
A military-style atmosphere that brooks no dissent is a big part of the problem, insists Conlin. "If you accuse your supervisor of sexual harassment, that's a grievous wrong in UPS culture. You violate the chain of command at your peril."
UPS's Gardner says this is not an accurate depiction of the company, which she claims is one of the most progressive in its treatment of female and minority employees. "Our workforce mirrors the American population and then some," she says. "This past year Fortune magazine named us as one of the fifty best companies for Asians, Hispanics and blacks. We are committed to diversity in the workplace."
Gardner points to the success of women at the company like Lea Soupata, one of the firm's highest-ranking executives, as an example. She says all of the company's executives started out in entry-level positions, and UPS is proud of its record of promoting from within.
"UPS is a very pro-active and forward-thinking company when it comes to the workplace environment," she says, noting that Bill Brown, former head of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, now serves on the company's board of directors.
The accusations against UPS would no doubt be deeply troubling to the man who founded the company, a lifelong bachelor who died in 1983 and left most of his wealth to a foundation dedicated to serving troubled teenagers.
UPS still lives in the shadow of founder Jim Casey. His father died when Casey was just eleven years old. In order to help his mother support his brothers and sister, the boy went to work as a bicycle messenger in Seattle. In 1907 he launched the American Messenger Company (later renamed UPS), with strict guidelines for its employees -- anyone who swore on the job was fined -- and a devotion to efficiency that soon became legendary.
While Casey expected much of his employees, he also made the company famous for its benevolence. He often wrote personal notes to UPS drivers, thanking them for their hard work, and he made a point of offering encouragement to employees who were experiencing difficult times at home. He fostered a corporate culture in which executives were recruited from the ranks of the delivery force, and employees were encouraged to think of the company as family. For years UPS prided itself on treating employees well, offering good pay and benefits; workers were known for their loyalty to "big brown."
The company was so successful that the strong, friendly UPS man eventually became an icon in American life, helping to find lost dogs and, according to a People magazine survey at least, appearing in the fantasies of many women.
"There isn't a month that goes by where a driver isn't recognized by their community for their actions, from rescuing a child from a fire to getting somebody out of a car in an accident," says Gardner. "They're tremendous goodwill ambassadors for the company."
But after Casey died, things began to change at UPS. New competition emerged from an array of overnight-delivery services, and the company became increasingly focused on the bottom line. While Casey had actually invited the Teamsters to organize his employees in 1916 and fostered amicable relations between labor and management, that relationship deteriorated in recent years as UPS shifted more of its workload to part-time employees who made far less money than the full-time drivers. Two years ago, the anger of UPS rank-and-file employees led to a fifteen-day strike that cost the company $1 billion.
UPS's longtime devotion to efficiency, coupled with the pressure to increase profits, has created a demanding work environment for the firm's 300,000 employees. "Industrial engineering managers" at UPS have factored the amount of time it should take a driver to deliver a package down to the millisecond. Drivers are expected to walk at a pace of three feet per second when delivering packages, and until a few years ago, the company even told drivers to carry packages under their left arm, step into the van with the right foot, and hold the key ring on the middle finger of their right hand so they could restart their vans without wasting time looking for the key. The appearance of the drivers is also carefully monitored: Shirts are supposed to be starched, beards and long hair are prohibited, and a brisk amiability is encouraged with customers.
"We feel the image our drivers present is very important," says Gardner. "Our customers love our drivers and remark on how clean-cut and professional they are."
One day Harris says she overheard a discussion between two supervisors about the advantages and drawbacks of employing single mothers. One said he hated having single moms work for him because they were always asking for time off. "The other supervisor said it was great having single moms because you could run them into the ground and make them do whatever you want and know they're not going to complain, because they need the job," recalls Harris. "He was right -- a lot of the women who worked there were single moms in the process of getting divorced, and they couldn't quit. The hours were good if you actually wanted to see your kids."
Harris often wondered how the men who were mistreating her would feel if their mothers could overhear them. She was astonished when some would even share photographs of their children.
"They had the nerve to call you a whore or a bitch and then pull out pictures of their kids," she says. "In their eyes, either you were a lesbian or a bitch who couldn't take a compliment. Those were the only two categories you could fit into."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Rental Homes Are in Awful Shape & Landlords Must Be Held Accountable
- AC/DC Still Has Big Balls
- Sloan's Lake Lawsuit: Did Plaintiffs Quit After Developer Tried to Buy Their House?