This much is known about the death of Linda Neal: She died Oct. 17, 2017 on the warehouse floor of XPO Logistics, where she worked.
Why she died – or whether she had to die at all – has touched off a bitter labor dispute that escalated into a full blown “March on the Boss,” with XPO employees picketing the Southeast Memphis warehouse, demanding safer work conditions, an end to sexual harrassment and more lenient policies for sick days.
“We work long hours in that heat,” said Lakeisha Nelson, an XPO employee. “We stand up every day, working overtime. You have to work until all the work is finished, however many hours that is. But there is no forgiveness. If you leave, sick or not, you get a point. After 10 points, you’re out of a job.”
But while officials with XPO Logistics lament the loss, they insist the company maintains a safe work environment and that managers acted appropriately and quickly to help save Neal’s life.
“The truth is that my colleague’s passing is being shamefully exploited by Teamsters who are trying to get XPO employees organized into a union,” said Erin Kurtz, senior vice president of communications. “Linda was given immediate medical attention and was not left unattended for 45 minutes. Again, this is a distortion by union organizers to deliberately mislead people.”
Neal reported to work on Oct. 17, 2017, like any other day. She mentioned that she wasn’t feeling well, said one of her sons.
“Some of the workers told us that my mom went to her supervisor and told him she was sick and asked to go home,” said Dean Turner, one of Neal’s five sons. “He said ‘No. Get back to work.’ She did and shortly after that, she collapsed on the floor.”
Nelson remembers the moment.
“I heard them call for a wheelchair, and I saw the security guy bringing one,” she said. “I was coming back from lunch, and I asked somebody ‘Man down?’ They said ‘Yeah.’ Then someone ran to me and said, ‘Lakeisha, it’s Linda!’ I ran there as fast as I could, but by the time I got there, management was keeping everybody back from her.”
Nelson said she wanted to administer CPR to her friend but was ordered to keep her distance.
“We were all told that if anyone touches her, they would be immediately terminated,” Nelson continued. “She died laying right there. I was screaming and crying.”
But in a statement, XPO Logistics vehemently denies that Neal was left unattended.
“Here are the facts: When our employee collapsed, we immediately called emergency services and cleared the area for first responders,” the statement said. “EMTs were on the scene within 10 minutes and we complied with their direction to restrict access until Memphis Police arrived.
“Our colleague’s passing was upsetting to everyone, especially her co-workers, who were told they could go home for the rest of the day,” the statement said.
Nelson remembers it differently.
“I begged to go home,” she said. “They told us, ‘Get back to work.’ I was still stepping over the pool of blood where she fell the next day.”
“No, we will never forget Linda Neal.”
Oct. 1: March on The Boss
Aggrieved XPO employees say that Neal’s death only underscored ongoing complaints about extreme heat, long hours and sexual harrassment. And on Oct. 1, flanked by various union and community leaders, the Shelby County NAACP and elected officials, several XPO employees publicly protested in front of XPO’s Southeast Memphis facility.
“Working conditions there are atrocious,” said NAACP President Deidre Malone, who also sits on the board of The New Tri-State Defender. “These employees are forced to work in 100-plus degrees for 14-16 hours a day sometimes.”
Kurtz pushed back on claims of extreme heat.
“Throughout the work site, there are giant fans installed, and they have been installed for years,” she said. “Any implication that they were only installed after Linda’s death is not true.”
In addition to Malone and other civic leaders, State Rep. G.A. Hardaway and U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen joined the protest as well. Malone said they were attempting to deliver a letter outlining complaints about the workplace, but were denied from entering the facility – even when Cohen asked.
“I was surprised that management not only refused to see us, but called the police,” Cohen said. “But the conditions in that plant are deplorable. And something is going to be done about it. This is unacceptable.”
As XPO spokeswoman, Kurtz said she never got a call from Cohen or anyone.
“We were accused of being insensitive and unresponsive to our employees by not speaking to marchers last week, but I always call everyone back,” she said. “No one called me. No one called the corporate office, including elected officials who stood with protesters last week.”
Asked about the optics of denying Cohen access to the plant last week, Kurtz said, “Well, I wasn’t there to actually know how the decision was made, but I can tell you that local teams were following the safety guidelines that are in place.”
Other elected officials on hand for the protest included State Reps G.A. Hardaway, Jessie Chism, and London Lamar. Members of #BlackLivesMatter, Fight For 15 and the Memphis Bus Riders Union also participated.
Nelson said her XPO plant employs many African-American and Latina women, who find themselves subjected to sexual harassment and demeaning treatment by XPO management, who are mostly white men.
“(There’s) groping and grabbing, sexual comments, supervisors forcing themselves on women while they work, and women being forced to take off their bras before coming onto the warehouse floor,” Nelson said.
“And if we report it, we may be out of a job.”
Kurtz stressed that worker unrest is being driven by union organizers.
“I was in Memphis not too long ago, and I visited the site there,” Kurtz said. “Our employees are upset that the company is being portrayed like this. That is because they love their jobs.”
Nelson said that most of her coworkers want a union, but are afraid of management. “We have been threatened with losing our jobs and with other types of retaliation if we join any protests,” she said.
“But I am ready to take the pain, to carry this burden, to walk this journey,” she continued, “so my children and grandchildren won’t have to.”