Delivering During the Pandemic: A Day in the Life of a UPS Driver
Snow began falling in Smithtown on December 16. By sunup, there was half a foot on the ground. Veteran UPS driver Greg Watkins, 56, rose early to shovel at his house in nearby Coram. The two communities are halfway out Long Island, with Smithtown—a multi-village township home to 120,000 people—roughly 45 miles east of Manhattan.
On a typical workday, he gets up around 6:30 a.m. “I muddle around the house, do anything I need to get done,” Watkins says. “I’m a budget guy,” he jokes. “I pack a lunch. I don’t like to admit this to the guys at work, but I like salad. I make it morning fresh.”
While some of his fellow drivers don the uniform at work, he puts his on at home. It includes regulation polishable leather boots with non-skid soles. They can be black or brown, but they need to shine. For that reason, every UPS center in the world has a polishing station.
These days he leaves a quieter house. When all four sons were at home, he’d have a few minutes with the full family—Gregory Jr., Kyle, Garrett, Kharlin, and his wife Katrina, a medical technologist. “GKGKGK,” Watkins says, including himself. His oldest boy, Gregory, excelled at soccer. Kyle, all-state in track, went on to run sprints for Manhattan College. Garrett, who loves graphic design, is a college high jumper and former division champ in hurdles at Longwood High. Kharlin, 18, will play college baseball or run track.
Readying to Deliver
Getting out the door a little early because of the snow, Watkins arrived at his three-center UPS facility around 8:30 a.m. He’s on the safety committee and this morning would lead the prework communications meeting—or PCM—a standard part of every first hour for all 500,000+ UPS employees.
Prior to COVID-19, about a hundred drivers from his center would gather together, a bustling scene with shades of the morning roll call in the classic ‘80s police drama “Hill Street Blues,” where the precinct sergeant would alert coffee-drinking cops to items meriting their attention, before sending them out into city streets with the line, “Let’s be careful out there.”
In pandemic-era PCMs, smaller groups of masked drivers, distanced from each other, attend a meeting installment, with the messages repeated for several groups. Along with leading the drivers in some warmup stretches, Watkins emphasized the snowy conditions. “Increase your following distance,” he counseled, “and watch your walk path when out of the truck.”
Overnight crews load the trucks. Watkins has been driving the same vehicle—a “package car” in company vernacular—for 14 years. After ensuring that items requiring delivery before 10:30 a.m. were easily accessible, he checked the tires, headlights, wipers, fire extinguisher, and rear reflector lights. Up front in the cab, along with other supplies, he had extra clothes in case he got cold. These trucks can be chilly in winter (and, without air-conditioning, hot in summer). They don’t have radios either. Though Watkins loves many kinds of music, from R&B to classical, and could, like some drivers, bring along a player, he chooses the quiet.
“I’m just out there driving,” he says. “Paying attention to the road.”
The Delivery (R)evolution
A native of East Orange, New Jersey, Watkins was born to a U.S. Army servicemember who fought in Vietnam, and a talented singer, Maxine Herbert. While she was still in high school, Maxine sang in an early-sixties vocal group, The Jelly Beans, who released a top-10 pop song, “I Wanna Love Him So Bad” in 1964.
Watkins started working for UPS in 1989. For six years he was part-time in operations, a job complemented by hours assisting a State Parks Department land surveyor, using drafting skills learned in architecture classes at the New York Institute of Technology. During his quarter-century as a driver, he’s seen up-close the way technology has impacted company operations, such as package tracking and upgrades of the Delivery Information Acquisition Device (DIAD).
DIADs are cellphone-resembling handheld computers that communicate route and delivery information. The device, which mounts to the dashboard, can send and receive messages, and includes a sophisticated navigational system, the UPSNav. Along with turn-by-turn directions and location-signaling tones, the UPSNav can recalculate delivery routes to factor in traffic and weather conditions.
“There were days I delivered 20 boxes to a single house,” says Watkins. “There were people on my route who up until the pandemic didn’t trust the internet for shopping who had to learn to trust it.”
He’s been working six days a week since the spring. The extra income was appreciated, Watkins says, because Katrina, once an Olympic-bound sprinter, had back surgeries delayed by the pandemic and couldn’t work. His daily volumes have hit upwards of 450 packages. The long days blur into each other, but one workday stands out—and for a good reason.
Shortly after the first lockdown ended, Watkins got a text from a customer—“Most of my people have my phone number,” he explains—asking if he could come to her block to help a neighbor.
He texted back, “Sure.” When he arrived in his truck, the street, lined with cars, was crowded with families, parents and kids, many of them holding “THANK YOU, GREG!” signs. They began applauding. Video of the surprise tribute went viral, and the NBC and ABC evening news interviewed Watkins.
“I have every single thing from that day put away,” he says of the notes, cards, posters, and signs. He was also given a hibiscus plant. “I’m taking good care of the plant,” he says. “I brought it inside for the winter and I’ve got a bunch of ultraviolet light on it.”
It’s a day he’ll always remember, just like it’s hard to forget those days after Hurricane Sandy hit in late October 2012. A number of the people out on the street thanking Watkins for his efforts during the pandemic witnessed his work during that challenging time, too.
“The first couple days I couldn’t get to all my stops,” Watkins recalls. “The one thing I had going for me was I knew the area well. If I couldn’t get down a street one way, I knew alternate ways to try. If that didn’t work, I would put the packages on my hand truck and walk down to those I could get to. I had to watch out for low-hanging branches and wires. But with the power out, everyone was gathered outside, spending time with neighbors. I was able to see more of my Smithtown family. My people are spectacular.”
Aside from slippery roads and sidewalks, December 17 turned out to be a fairly routine day—“routine” in the new normal, that is. He delivered a high volume of packages to houses, apartment buildings, businesses, office buildings, and a shopping center. Watkins had been dealing with holiday-season capacities for weeks (a development anticipated by UPS, which began hiring seasonal workers back in October). It was another long shift, but he felt okay physically at the end. “I think my body’s adapted after all these years,” he says.
When Watkins returned to his center, he signed his DVIR book—the Driver Vehicle Inspection Report—attesting that everything was fine mechanically with his truck. Then he brought some pickup packages to the drop-off counter and punched out.
It had been dark for hours. Once he got home, he enjoyed a late dinner with Katrina and caught some second-half minutes of the Thursday Night Football broadcast. “I love football,” says Watkins, a huge fan of the New York Giants. “I could watch it all year.”
He and Katrina have a plan for retirement. They’d like to move to either Virginia or South Carolina. Either way, they’ll be much closer to Gregory Jr., who now lives in North Carolina. Watkins thinks it won’t be long before he becomes a grandfather. Katrina is lobbying for Virginia, but Watkins is leaning toward the Palmetto State. “I’ve done my research!” he says. “South Carolina is better on the pension.”
Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.