Toiling Over a “Puddle of Blood”: Why These Warehouse Workers Are Standing Up to Abuses

Mica Soellner April 23, 2018

XPO Logistics provides transportation, delivery and logistics for Verizon, Ikea, Home Depot and other retailers. (José Ramón Márquez / JCCM)

TEN­NESSEE — Fifty years ago, Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. lent his sup­port to the his­toric Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion work­ers’ strike. Today, the safe work­ing con­di­tions that strik­ers fought for in 1968 remain elu­sive for low-wage work­ers in one Mem­phis warehouse.

Work­ers at the XPO Logis­tics ware­house in Mem­phis announced in ear­ly April that they had filed a com­plaint to the Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion (EEOC) alleg­ing ram­pant abuse, includ­ing sex­u­al harass­ment. On April 3, work­ers held a ral­ly with the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters (IBT) to coin­cide with the fil­ing of the EEOC complaint.

The com­plaint was trig­gered by an XPO worker’s death that co-work­ers attribute to com­pa­ny poli­cies which restrict work­ers from leav­ing the job. In Octo­ber 2017, Lin­da Neal, 58, died at work after pass­ing out on the job. Work­ers allege that a super­vi­sor denied Neal being giv­en CPR by a co-work­er. Med­ical reports con­firmed that Neal died of a heart attack caused by car­dio­vas­cu­lar disease.

XPO Logis­tics, based in Con­necti­cut, has ware­hous­es across the coun­try and a mar­ket val­ue of near­ly $9 bil­lion. The com­pa­ny pro­vides trans­porta­tion, deliv­ery and logis­tics for Ver­i­zon, Ikea, Home Depot and oth­er retail­ers. The Mem­phis ware­house has more than 300 per­ma­nent employ­ees and more than 400 tem­po­rary workers.

Lakeisha Nel­son, who has worked for XPO since 2014 and was close to Neal, tells In These Times, “[Neal] was a moth­er fig­ure to a lot of us, and we had to become fam­i­ly in that build­ing. We had to work over the pud­dle of blood that was left behind the next morn­ing, and that hurt me to my core.”

Nel­son believes com­pa­ny pol­i­cy played a role in Neal’s death, recall­ing that an XPO super­vi­sor would not allow Neal to leave work when she expressed she was feel­ing ill.

She told them she wasn’t feel­ing well and this was just XPO’s pol­i­cy,” says Nel­son. I don’t blame the super­vi­sor, he was just doing his job. This is what he has to do in order to keep his job — don’t let any­one go home.”

The only thing that’s impor­tant to XPO is them mak­ing mon­ey, and if it takes our lives to get their mon­ey, then our lives are expend­able,” says Nel­son. And they tell us all, if you don’t like the way we do things, find anoth­er job. It’s very, very easy to get fired there.”

Staff work­ers have filed mul­ti­ple com­plaints regard­ing safe­ty haz­ards and dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions, but lit­tle has been done by man­age­ment to address them, accord­ing to Nelson.

Nel­son says the build­ing and ceil­ing are cav­ing in while work­ers face harsh tem­per­a­tures inside that fluc­tu­ate with the weath­er, and that sweaters are only allowed if they are pur­chased through the company.

The for­got­ten women of #MeToo

Sex­u­al harass­ment at the com­pa­ny is anoth­er issue that has gone unsolved, despite attempts to get Human Resources involved, accord­ing to Nelson.

The ware­house has a his­to­ry of sex­u­al harass­ment. In 2015, New Breed Logis­tics, which was acquired by XPO in 2014, lost a $1.5 mil­lion dol­lar suit after a male super­vi­sor sex­u­al­ly harassed three female tem­po­rary work­ers who were then ter­mi­nat­ed for refus­ing his advances.

Eliz­a­beth Ged­mark is a senior staff attor­ney for A Bet­ter Bal­ance, an orga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes paid leave and oth­er fam­i­ly-friend­ly poli­cies, and which is sup­port­ing the Mem­phis ware­house work­ers. She says that low-wage work­ers are par­tic­u­lar­ly at risk of harassment. 

The notion that you can just quit and leave your job when you’re faced with sex­u­al harass­ment or dis­crim­i­na­tion does not apply to a low-wage work­er need­ing to get by liv­ing pay­check to pay­check,” Ged­mark tells In These Times. If she does file a com­plaint, she faces a very real like­li­hood of retaliation.

They’re very much a part of the glob­al #MeToo move­ment that’s not just about movie stars or wealthy women, it’s real­ly about these women being put front and cen­ter, the hard-work­ing, aver­age women who too often go unnoticed.”

Next steps

Restric­tive sched­ul­ing and time-off poli­cies are also affect­ing XPO work­ers’ per­son­al lives. Nel­son claims that work­ers often do not know when their shift will end and have lit­tle to no notice of overtime.

Eliz­a­beth How­ley, 38, is the oper­a­tional admin­is­tra­tor for the Mem­phis ware­house and has been at the com­pa­ny for six years. How­ley has also expressed con­cerns over poor work­ing con­di­tions, claim­ing work­ers have been forced to deal with bugs, snakes and oth­er crea­tures infest­ing the work­place. But, she says, the strict hours are what have most dri­ven emo­tion­al stress in her per­son­al life.

How­ley says that most of the women work­ing at the ware­house are sin­gle moth­ers, and being sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies and chil­dren for long peri­ods have tak­en a toll on them. When Howley’s old­est son dropped out of high school, she says, she was unable to get out of work to help get him back into school. 

I’ve lost so much time with my chil­dren in the past five or six years being with this com­pa­ny and it hurts because my kids are in need of me and I can’t be there for them,” How­ley tells In These Times. I had to apol­o­gize, say­ing I’m sor­ry, son, I don’t have PTO time to get you back into school.’”

The Mem­phis XPO ware­house work­ers are cur­rent­ly work­ing with IBT to address these issues and improve the safe­ty con­di­tions and end the harass­ment that con­tin­ues in their work­place. They are in the ear­ly stages of orga­niz­ing, and IBT Gen­er­al Pres­i­dent James P. Hof­fa has pledged to back them in their union dri­ve. They have also earned the sup­port of civ­il and women’s rights groups such as the NAACP and Nation­al Women’s Law Center.

Maybe by expos­ing XPO and the con­di­tions that they make these work­ers work under will bring about a change,” Feli­cia Walk­er, an inter­na­tion­al orga­niz­er for IBT, tells In These Times. These are human beings, not ani­mals. There are laws to pro­tect ani­mals from that treat­ment, what about humans?”

Mica Soell­ner is a jour­nal­ist cur­rent­ly based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. She has writ­ten for a vari­ety of glob­al out­lets and is inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing sto­ries about issues in the workplace.
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