BRISTOL, Va. — Drive past one of UPS’ big brown vans while it makes its daily rounds and you might be struck by the driver’s relaxed and calm demeanor.
The cab doors are usually wide open, and the driver greets customers with a simple wave of the hand while navigating narrow driveways with an ease that comes from doing the job every day.
Behind the casual habits, however, is a list of rules that drivers must follow, from the proper height to carry a package — above the belt — and the correct way to exit the truck — always put the package down before stepping down and make sure to use the truck’s sturdy handrail.
During its busiest time of the year, the delivery giant invited the Bristol Herald Courier to ride along with delivery driver Ray Earles for an inside look at what goes into being a UPS driver. I witnessed the nitty-gritty of a driver’s day, the challenges faced, and how technology has evolved and changed the business.
Early mornings and late nights
Enter UPS’ distribution center at 8 a.m. and you realize that while you were struggling to get out of bed and downing that first cup of coffee, you’ve missed a lot of activity.
Workers start preparing trucks at 4 a.m. for the day ahead. The company’s unique planning software loads a floor plan for the dozens of trucks that serve the Bristol area, showing workers where to stack packages. Done correctly, boxes are placed in the exact order they’ll be delivered, so the proper item is at arm’s length when the driver pulls up to the next stop.
Earles, an Abingdon resident, has driven for UPS since 2009 but has worked for the company for almost two decades. His day starts at 9 a.m. and can last longer than 12 hours. Despite the long hours, Earles said he wouldn’t trade what he does for anything.
“I love my job and have a lot of fun doing it,” Earles said. “I like to drive, and that’s one thing that you have to like when doing this job because you’re on the road so many hours a day.”
Earles added that changing weather almost always keeps drivers on their toes.
“You definitely picked a good day to ride along,” Earles told me after we made our first stop of the morning. “It isn’t too cold out here, which is nice. If this was summer — we would be hot.”
After our third stop, I asked Earles if the trucks had heat or air. His answer was simple.
“No,” he joked. “That’s why I always keep the doors closed during the winter months and open them during the summertime. You see that fan over there — that is all we’ve got when it gets 95-degrees outside in July. I try and keep a towel on the dash — to constantly wipe the sweat off.”
Being a UPS driver also keeps Earles, 49, physically fit and active.
“My wife and kids all got Fitbits, and they were bragging about how many miles and steps they took in a day,” Earles joked. “I showed them mine and told them it was time to start moving.”
The drivers are always on the go. Thousands of parcels can move through the Bristol center on a slow Wednesday in May — but that volume can easily double during the holiday season.
“During the weeks leading up to Christmas, I’ll have nearly 200 stops in one day,” Earles said. “I’ll deliver my morning packages, then go back and pick up another load of packages for a completely different route than what I had this morning. It is always changing every single day.”
Because of the high demand, UPS has hired part-time holiday helpers, who ride alongside full-time drivers to deliver packages. Earles said the extra help is greatly appreciated.
“It makes the process move along a lot faster,” he said. “When I have a helper on board, they will be the one who delivers the package. While they’re doing that — I’ll make sure the next package is ready to go and already have the route mapped out in my head and in the system.”
Unleashing the algorithms
Even in the off seasons, each driver delivers around 100 packages on a daily route, so experienced drivers say that technology and preload is critical to success.
Each UPS truck must accommodate boxes with an array of overlapping delivery deadlines. A single truck like the one Earles drives might leave at 9 a.m., deliver all of its next day air packages by 10:30 a.m., make a second loop of the neighborhood and businesses by early afternoon, then make a third and final loop to deliver residential packages and make pickups.
“Getting those next day air packages delivered by 10:30 a.m. is at the top of the list,” Earles said. “Our customers are the ones paying to have those packages delivered in a timely manner.”
To help sort those overlapping deadlines, Earles’ constant companion is a handheld device that displays a list of addresses and scans every package to record delivery time. It even exchanges text messages with a manager, and makes arrangements to meet another UPS driver for pickup.
The handheld device, called a DIAD for Delivery Information Acquisition Device, was launched in 1990 and Earles said it’s helped him ever since.
“While on the road, I’m my own boss,” Earles said. “I might talk to my supervisor at the hub in the morning and then that’s it. DIAD really keeps me on track and really is effective technology.”
Software called ORION, or On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation, will practically shave minutes off a driver’s route by calculating the shortest and safest route possible.
According to Earles, the technology has changed the way UPS delivers packages.
“We know exactly where we are going because of the technology,” Earles said. “Back in the early days of package delivery, drivers literally used pen and paper to map out their daily routes.”
Speaking of routes — Earles said a lot of memorization goes into being a driver.
“I have all 15 routes in Washington County completely memorized,” Earles said. “It just comes with doing the job every day — you just know where you’re going, and a large part of that is because many of the customers are repeat customers, and you have a lot of business stops, too.”
The human factor
In the span of a few hours along Earles’ bustling route, we visited a radio station, a police department, a lighting supply store, a church, and dozens of homes from Interstate 81’s Exit 5 to the Bristol train station. Earles greeted his customers with a smile and asked how they were doing.
Some stops had multiple packages, while others were small bubble-wrapped envelopes. For Earles, it’s the people that bring him the most joy.
“It’s like playing Santa Claus every day,” Earles said. “People are truly excited about receiving their packages, and I try and make it a point every day to bring a simple smile to their faces.”
At one house along East Valley Drive, a woman asked if Earles and I could bring her packages inside and place them where she could get to them. We both smiled and said yes.
“Going a little out of the way to help someone brings me so much joy,” Earles said. “It’s a lot of hard work doing what we do every day — but when you do something you love — it isn’t work.”
It’s not easy being brown
No, those packages don’t just magically appear.
I knew the work would be hard, but I knew I was made of tough stuff. The UPS truck seems big, and it requires two steps up to sit in the small, compact jump seat next to the driver. I saw parts of the Twin City that I had never seen before.
You don’t realize how fast UPS drivers work until you’re out there with them. I was out of breath from jogging up flights of stairs to unloading multiple packages — it was a true workout.
What was there to learn about delivering packages the UPS way? A lot.
And I soon found out that Ray Earles takes great pride delivering those packages. Every box was placed quickly on the porch or by the door. It was a challenge to make sure that each was hidden from anyone who might try to steal them.
The packages were heavy, and I have never been so tired in my adult life. Advil was my friend that night.
So the next time you hear the brief knock that indicates you’ve got a UPS package, stick your head out and wave to the driver. A simple thank you and a smile truly go a long way.
As for me, I met a lot of great people along the route. I wore that brown jacket with pride. It’s not easy being brown, but it’s satisfying.