Tiera Washington's workload doubled during the holiday rush at UPS' largest air hub, where seemingly endless streams of packages are sorted and shipped as the peak season puts the package delivery company to the test.
The 23-year-old's usual four-hour daily shift can stretch to seven or eight hours, and sometimes lasts 10 to 12 hours, as a small army feverishly plucks packages off a conveyor belt and loads them for air and ground travel in a cavernous building that would cover 90 football fields.
"We get to make Christmas better for our families," she said during a break. "So we're helping them (customers) and they're helping us."
UPS, the world's largest shipping carrier, expects to deliver more than 120 million parcels around the world during the peak week leading up Christmas, up 6 percent from the 113 million shipped during the same period a year ago.
The Atlanta-based company expects the pace to reach its pinnacle Thursday, with close to 26 million packages reaching their destinations. That volume is up more than 60 percent from daily norms.
Rival FedEx Corp., based in Memphis, Tenn., shipped about 17 million packages on Dec. 12, the busiest day in company history, it said. That one-day volume was up 10 percent from last year's busiest day, and doubled total shipments on an average night.
Shipping performance and forecasts from UPS and FedEx are closely watched because they tend to indicate how the broader economy is doing by shipping so many packages for consumers and businesses.
FedEx attributed its recent record day to steady growth in online commerce, spokeswoman Carla Boyd said. Since 2005, the company's busiest-day volumes are up almost 75 percent.
UPS has declined to offer a full estimate for how many packages it will deliver between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year, the company said it shipped more than 440 million packages worldwide between the two holidays.
But UPS spokesman Norman Black said that "clearly our volume has grown compared to last year."
Last year, UPS had one day of deliveries topping 25 million, Black said. This holiday season, the company expects at least five days with deliveries approaching or exceeding 25 million, he said.
A surge in online sales, as more consumers shop on computers rather than at malls, contributed to the shipping boost, along with last-minute bargain hunting, he said. The result is the company's peak season is compressed to the last two weeks before Christmas, he said.
"That's obviously making for a busy peak shipping season for us," Black said.
At the UPS Worldport hub at Louisville International Airport, about 3 million packages were sorted daily during the holiday season, twice normal volumes. Packages ride a labyrinth of conveyors belts stretching some 150 miles during the automated sorting process.
"We're going to exhaust ourselves right up through Christmas Eve, when we anticipate delivering about 900,000 express packages," UPS Airlines President Mitch Nichols said.
The grueling package handling work carries personal implications for employees logging long hours to make extra cash.
Washington said she takes comfort in spreading holiday cheer for countless customers worldwide and at home for her two children, ages 3 and 1.
"I'll be able to give them everything they want for Christmas with the extra money," she said.
The starting salary for UPS package handlers is $8.50 an hour. Washington works at the air hub year round, but plans to go back to school next year in hopes of becoming a pharmacy technician.
Kion Sloan, 19, worked his 12th straight day Wednesday as he loaded packages onto a conveyor. He juggles work at UPS and a pizza restaurant to support his young son. Sloan welcomed the extra hours, but admitted to feeling a bit more tired, as he watched packages bound for states from Oregon to Rhode Island ride the conveyor for sorting.
"I feel like if I don't do my job, they won't get their packages on time and they won't get the Christmas they want to have," he said.
The Louisville facility employs about 9,000 people year-round and added about 550 seasonal workers _ comparable to last year's extra hirings _ to meet holiday demand. Companywide, UPS hired 55,000 seasonal workers and chartered 34 extra cargo jets to keep pace.
FedEx also feels the "increased sense of urgency" during the holidays, since the company was "founded on the premise of deadlines," said T. Michael Glenn, the company's executive vice president of market development.
Fed-Ex hired 20,000 seasonal employees this year, compared to 17,000 last year, Boyd said.
FedEx Corp.: http://www.fedex.com/