NEWARK, N.J. – Pamela Pope spent her days doing a mix of work at FedEx’s Newark Liberty International Airport facility, from deliveries to unloading the dozens of cargo planes flying in and out every day. It was a job she loved, and one the 56-year-old from Neptune had done for more than half her life.
But as coronavirus cases began to spread among her coworkers, fears of contracting the virus dominated her thoughts, family members said.
“Today I am scheduled off from work and am grateful,” she wrote a cousin in a text message. “My FedEx location has nothing for me. They said they ordered stuff for us but it was backordered? In this stage we can’t find masks, the bacterial gloves, sanitizer, nothing, cuz, and we are required to be at work.”
“She became really afraid to even go to work,” said her sister Debbie Hyman, who said Pope brought her own masks, gloves and cleaning supplies to work.
Pope died of coronavirus on April 25, her sister said.
She is not the only FedEx worker whose symptoms have turned fatal.
The day prior, eight FedEx Express domestic workers deaths were cited in an internal document obtained by the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Bergen Record.
At least five fatalities have occurred in Newark, according to family members who spoke with reporters from both newspapers. The death of a sixth person, identified as a FedEx Newark worker on her personal LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, was also attributed to COVID-19 complications in the social media posts of family members. Attempts to reach that family were unsuccessful.
FedEx confirmed in a statement that “some” of its Newark employees have tested positive for COVID-19, with most of them receiving treatment or having recovered from the disease.
“We are deeply saddened that a small number of team members have succumbed to the virus or complications related to it,” FedEx said in its statement. “We have been in contact with these families to offer our deepest condolences.”
Interviews with multiple family members and FedEx workers, coupled with a trail of complaints, filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, reveal a pattern of allegations that there was little and often delayed communication with FedEx workers about whether they had contact with a positive colleague; personal protective equipment has been lacking; and insufficient or no cleaning took place at sites where people who tested positive worked.
A few days before Pope’s death, Clara Newkirk, who logged cargo data at the Newark site, died at age 70, according to her daughter, Stephanie Newkirk-Miller.
A 24-year FedEx veteran, Newkirk came home coughing from her last day of work before a two-week leave of absence she decided to take to reduce her risk of exposure, her daughter said.
“She was known as Mama Clara. She was sweet, a hard worker, she loved FedEx,” her daughter, Stephanie Newkirk-Miller said. “I begged her not to go to work when COVID started, but she said she had to go to work to do her duties.”
During that leave, FedEx sent Newkirk an email, that she’d been exposed to a coworker who tested positive, Newkirk-Miller said.
“They should have called and told her. They dropped the ball,” said Newkirk-Miller, who believes her mother might have received care sooner if she had known someone had tested positive.
Hyman also thinks the company should have taken worker safety more seriously.
“They are a huge company and it’s like, ‘Why couldn’t you afford all this? You’re not a little, tiny, ten-people company. You are a huge company, all over the world,’” Hyman said of FedEx, which has a market value of more than $30 billion.
Workplace exposure in a regional hotspot
FedEx said it “has found no objective evidence to suggest our employees are at any greater risk than the surrounding community, and we continue to assess each confirmed case of our employees in detail.” It pointed to the high overall number of cases in the New Jersey and New York areas, saying positive COVID-19 tests among its employees are in line with state infection trends.
New Jersey has the second-highest number of deaths and known positive cases of coronavirus in the country, behind neighboring New York. Essex County, where Newark is located, has the highest number of deaths in the state at 1,240, as of May 1, and the third-highest number of positive cases compared with the state’s 20 other counties.
Expert: FedEx resources ‘so vast,’ it could close Newark
The Newark hub, located at Newark Liberty International Airport, handles regional sorting and processing for FedEx Express’ global delivery network. The facility can sort up to 156,000 documents and packages per hour – only the FedEx Express World Hub in Memphis and the national Indianapolis hub have higher capacities.
“Newark is a regional overlay, meaning if Buffalo (New York) has a lot of shipments going to the Northeast instead of going to Memphis, they will have a second plane that goes to Newark,” said Dean Maciuba of consulting service Logistics Trends & Insights.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, FedEx said it is diverting package volume away from Newark to “promote social distancing and limit the number of people working” at the hub.
Maciuba worked at FedEx in various positions, including in aircraft ramp operations management, for more than 35 years. He said FedEx could shut down a regional hub like Newark and redirect those packages to its larger hubs in Memphis and Indianapolis in response to a COVID-19 outbreak. Because of that, FedEx is better positioned to handle an outbreak in its air network than rivals UPS or Amazon.
“FedEx is more able to respond to ad hoc circumstances because their air network and resources are just so vast” compared to rivals UPS and Amazon, he said.
FedEx workforce complaints sent to OSHA and Sen. Cory Booker
At least 464 of FedEx Express’ U.S. employees have contracted the coronavirus, according to figures in the internal company report obtained by the newspapers, which FedEx did not dispute. FedEx Express employed around 112,000 domestic workers as of 2019, part of FedEx’s overall U.S. workforce of 293,000. The 70-acre Newark location has about 2,000 employees.
Workers in at least 13 states have filed 26 complaints related to COVID-19 workplace safety with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration as of April 22 – when OSHA data shows another 45 investigations involving as-yet undisclosed employers in the courier industry were underway.
Allegations raised in complaints to OSHA included:Complaints about a lack of or insufficient cleaning on company property, including instances after workers tested positive.Little enforcement or encouragement for social distancing.Concerns about not being notified about positive cases at work.No training for employees about safe working conditions or procedures during a pandemic.In some cases, cleaning or protective equipment was not provided, including masks, sanitizers, gloves, bathroom soap, and cleaning supplies.
OSHA wrote that it would not provide the findings of its investigations into the 26 FedEx worker complaints the agency has closed, unless a Freedom of Information Act was filed. A spokesperson said inspectors do not close complaints for which citations have been identified, though inspectors can use discretion in deciding not to issue a citation if they believe the employer is acting in good faith.
The complaints echo the claims of multiple whistleblowers at FedEx’s main hub in Memphis – and concerns sent to the office of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a spokesperson said.
In a letter sent Friday to FedEx Chairman and CEO Fred Smith, Booker said he was “deeply troubled by reports” of FedEx Newark hub workers contracting COVID-19 and “several” having died from the disease.
Booker urged the company “to take immediate and decisive action to properly enforce and strengthen social distancing policies, expand access to PPE, enhance sanitization practices, and drastically improve transparency and communication with workers” if reports around the country on FedEx workplace safety shortcomings are accurate.
“If we are to successfully mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus in America, FedEx, which directly employs thousands of people across the country and reaches millions more through its services, must prioritize the safety and wellbeing of its employees and customers through stronger safety protocols and enforcement oversight,” Booker said.
Booker said multiple FedEx employees have informed his office “that they only learned of their exposure to coworkers that have tested positive for COVID-19 from other colleagues, and heard no such information from management.”
According to Booker, some employees who came in contact with COVID-19 positive workers reported that management advised them “to only quarantine for one or two days” rather than the CDC-recommended 14-day self-isolation.
“Employees who were diagnosed with COVID-19 have also reported that FedEx never advised them how long they should stay home from work, nor did FedEx request that they identify any coworkers with whom they had been in close contact,” Booker said.
Employees also told the New Jersey Senator that when they requested masks in early March, “they were informed by management that it was not FedEx’s responsibility to provide them.”
“I understand that masks have since been provided to some employees, but not consistently,” Booker said in his letter. “I have also received reports that despite many confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 at your Newark Shipping Center, the facility has not been consistently cleaned, nor has FedEx been adequately sanitizing work stations, bathrooms, or common areas.”
FedEx announces improvements, workers dispute execution
For its part, FedEx said in a statement it has made several safety improvements at the Newark hub.
“We are conducting temperature screenings for all team members, vendors and visitors entering the Newark hub; providing personal protective equipment to all team members, with masks and gloves required; enhancing sanitization practices with more frequent deep cleanings of common areas and vehicles.”
FedEx notifies employees, customers and vendors who may have had close contact “as defined by CDC guidelines” with an employee with COVID-19, according to its statement. Employees in close contact are contacted by FedEx and asked to call a doctor and self-quarantine for 14 days, the company said.
FedEx did not respond when asked how soon its employees are contacted after possible contact with someone who tested positive.
While some of these changes have been made in recent weeks, more could be done, said several workers who asked that their identities be protected because they feared retribution.
“The temperatures (screenings) are awesome. I think that helps out a lot because there are people that are probably sick and want to come to work,” one worker said. He and other workers noted that temperatures were being checked at only one of the hub’s three entrances.
Some personal protective equipment is now being provided, with N-95 masks going to some departments, but not others. One ramp worker said they receive one, maybe two, surgical masks per week, and gloves that break easily during a shift that includes moving heavy cans of parcels or freight on and off planes and operating machinery.
Suggestions have been made to stagger shifts to help with distancing and reduce exposure, but that has not happened, one FedEx employee said.
FedEx said in a statement it has provided “clear and frequent communication that reinforces the importance of personal hygiene, self-monitoring for symptoms and staying home when unwell.”
But workers say the process of notifying them about when they have been around peers who have tested positive has been uneven.
Some workers said they received notifications from headquarters about people in their work area testing positive – but in some cases they were told more than a week later. Then they were told to quarantine for the remaining days of the CDC-suggested 14 days after contact. Others have not received any notifications.
“They try not to say much when it comes to the virus, they don’t really want to really talk about it,” he said.
As their ranks have tested positive, died and others go out on leave, some have begun to feel scared and nervous for their well-being.
“These guys have been working for FedEx for years, I mean years, and we lose them, but nobody wants to talk about it,” one worker said. “They just want to keep producing, keep people in the boxes, keep people on the cans. ... If one person goes down, there’s another guy to take his place – that’s how I feel.”
One of those guys was FedEx ramp worker Alex Lopez.
Lopez, who worked at FedEx for eight years on the ramp helping to on-load and off-load freight from planes, left for Florida on March 10. It’s unclear how Lopez, 48, contracted coronavirus, but while on vacation he started getting chills in the morning, but didn’t have any other unusual symptoms, according to his sister, Lexi Lopez.
After returning from Florida, Lexi Lopez said he stayed home as his symptoms worsened, eventually going to Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where his oxygen levels became dangerously low.
On the morning of April 2, Lopez wrote to his family and friends on Facebook that he was going on a ventilator.
“This coronavirus is trying to kick my butt and I’m fighting it. Need some love n prayers come my way please. Tyvm in advance!!!”
Lopez died later that day.
Now, Lexi Lopez is finalizing the retirement for her 74-year-old father, who worked alongside his son at FedEx in Newark.
Debbie Hyman, Pamela Pope’s sister, is currently attempting to manage her sister’s cremation and apartment from afar, in Maryland. A FedEx supervisor was in touch with her immediately to provide information on accessing Pope’s death benefits, she said. Since the family lacks the funds needed to pay for Pope’s cremation, the information was welcome, Hyman said.
But she wants to know why FedEx didn’t act as swiftly when her sister was still alive.
“They need to secure their employees. Because that did not have to happen,” she said of her sister’s death. “If they knew that other employees were going through that, it should have been more secure ... with what they needed.”
FedEx credits its workers with “providing critical services for healthcare providers, government agencies and families across the globe.”
The dozens of FedEx cargo planes flying to and from Newark daily couldn’t safely do so without the work of people like Orlando Gutierrez and Elvis Reed.
Gutierrez, a 60-year-old machine operator at the FedEx Newark hub, died April 18 from COVID-19 complications, according to Newark employees.
Reed, a 53-year-old ramp agent who lived in Linden, died April 20 after testing positive for COVID-19, said his brother, Robert Reed.
“He did the weights and balances on the airplanes,” Robert Reed said. “He was the guy doing the numbers behind the scenes.”
Reed prepared for COVID-19 at work – Robert Reed said his brother sanitized his own workspace and came to work with his own mask and gloves. He had expressed frustration in employees not practicing social distancing and a lack of personal protective equipment, according to his brother.
“He was the one who cared,” Robert Reed said. “He stated to everyone, ‘Look, why are you guys congregating when you know there has to be separation? This thing is attacking people left and right, and there are people dying from this.’”
Elvis Reed initially believed he had a nasal issue, his brother said, but went to a hospital and tested positive for COVID-19. His condition worsened “phenomenally quickly,” Robert Reed said.
“He was concerned about it on a Friday, and by Monday, he was already gone,” Robert Reed said.
Contributing: Daniel Connolly
Max Garland reports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Follow him on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes.
Sarah Macaraeg reports for The Commercial Appeal. Follow her on Twitter @seramak.
Colleen Wilson reports for NorthJersey.com. Follow her on Twitter: @colleenallreds.