Senators demand answers from XPO on workplace conditions across its system

Under the Senate’s microscope (Photo: Shutterstock)

Under the Senate’s microscope (Photo: Shutterstock)

A group of U.S. senators has demanded that transport and logistics giant XPO Logistics, Inc. (NYSE:XPO) provide details by Dec. 4 on workplace practices throughout its system in the wake of allegations that the company subjected pregnant female employees to overly strenuous working conditions at its Memphis warehouse, and that some workers may have suffered miscarriages as a result.

The letter, dated yesterday and co-signed by 8 Democrats and one Independent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), requested that the company respond to 7 questions, most of which go beyond the alleged incidents at the Memphis facility to address workplace issues across the company’s U.S. network, which includes more than 370 distribution centers. The senators said they want XPO to “outline changes that will be made to improve working conditions and protect your employees throughout the country.”

For example, the letter queried if XPO provides any accommodations for workers who are temporarily disabled. In addition, the company was asked to update the senators on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by workers at its Tennessee facilities.

The letter pointed out that as a contractor to the federal government, XPO received $85 million in tax dollars during the 2018 fiscal year. Among the co-signatories was Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s senior senator. XPO is headquartered in Greenwich, Conn.

The dispute stems from a New York Times mid-October expose in which it said pregnant workers at XPO’s Memphis warehouse face an excessively demanding workload, and are forced to function in difficult conditions, with temperatures routinely exceeding 100 degrees and with humidity often making it difficult to breathe. Another flashpoint occurred on Oct. 17, 2017 when Linda Neal, a 58-year-old worker, collapsed on the warehouse floor and died of a heart attack. According to the Times story, her son said that supervisors had denied her permission to leave early when she complained about feeling ill. XPO said in an earlier statement that emergency services were immediately called after Neal collapsed, and employee access was restricted until Memphis police arrived. “Our colleague’s passing was deeply upsetting, and employees had the option to leave work for the rest of the day,” according to the XPO statement..

In the letter, the senators acknowledged that some of the reported miscarriages—the Times’ story referenced at least six—occurred when New Breed Logistics, which XPO acquired in 2014, operated the facility. Despite that, the “abominable conditions and antiquated policies” at the facility continue to this day, according to the letter. XPO operates the facility on behalf of telecom titan Verizon Wireless.

In a statement today, XPO said it “looks forward to sharing details about our progressive employee policies with the senators and providing information that demonstrates the allegations made in prior news articles about our Memphis facility are false. We take seriously our responsibility to provide a safe workplace where all employees, including pregnant women, are treated with respect.”

XPO, whose founder and CEO, Brad Jacobs, is no fan of unions, believes that the Teamsters union, which has been in a long-running battle to organize workers at its less-than-truckload unit, is behind the effort to generate false and adverse publicity about conditions at the Memphis facility. The union, which has launched a strategy to organize logistics workers beyond its traditional trucking, parcel, and airline bases, seized on the Times story as evidence XPO is an uncaring employer that must be held to account through the collective-bargaining process.

Earlier this month, XPO published a fact sheet on its website defending its policies and practices. After the miscarriage allegation surfaced last month, the company said it conducted a review of four years of compliance reports and could not find any allegations that were reported either to XPO or New Breed. XPO said its employee accommodation policies meet or exceed what the law requires, and that managers are trained on them throughout the year.

The company acknowledged that the Memphis facility is not a temperature-controlled workplace. It said that fans are located throughout the location to help circulate the air, and that fans are place din personal work stations. Workers are allowed to take rest breaks at any time once they inform their supervisors, XPO said.

Warehouse working conditions have taken on a higher profile as e-commerce growth puts greater focus on fulfillment speed and efficiency, and workers are pressured as never before to increase throughput. Allegations of employee mistreatment have also made headlines; an author who went undercover as an employee at an Amazon.com. Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) warehouse in Britain for a book on low worker wages reported that some line workers would urinate in bottles for fear that bathroom breaks would force them to miss their volume targets. Amazon has denied the allegations.

According to the Times article, workers at the XPO facility were required to pack 120 boxes per hour instead of the 60 boxes an hour they were accustomed to handling.