Jessica James had to get up and down that ramp.
Her job at FedEx’s World Hub was to help ensure the trucks in her area were loaded and unloaded on time. That meant navigating forklifts on sloped ramps, even when the ramps were falling apart.
On the night of Feb. 18, 2022, FedEx surveillance video shows James, a team leader, climbing on and off a forklift, first to reposition the damaged ramp’s displaced metal grates, then again after a rear forklift wheel jumped the ramp’s curb, then again when another forklift driver came to help.
In what would be her last attempt to do her job, James got back on the forklift and put it in reverse, only for a right rear wheel to roll into a crater in the ramp.
James, who was not wearing her seatbelt, was thrown from the nearly 5-ton forklift, which then fell on her. She was one of three employees to die in workplace incidents at Memphis-area FedEx locations in 2022 and seven since 2014.
A state safety investigation would later reveal that the 23-year-old ramp James was on that night should have been out of service. Less than two months earlier, an inspection found the severely damaged ramp needed repairs for cracks, tires, and bolts that fasten the grating to the frame.
Her death illustrates the risks inherent in a culture where speed is of the essence and safety comes a distant second, say former employees. An exhaustive investigation by the Tennessee Occupational Health and Safety Administration details a workplace where managers knew damaged ramps were in use, disregarded employees’ safety concerns and even told workers to use the best of the broken ramps.
TOSHA cited FedEx for seven safety violations, including failing to ensure workers weren’t using damaged equipment and failing to enforce the seat belt policy. With annual revenue of $94 billion, FedEx was fined $26,000 – which in 2022 took the shipping giant nine seconds to earn.
James’ mother, Cora James, has sued FedEx for $3.5 million in damages. The lawsuit alleges FedEx “acted with actual intent to intentionally disregard accepted safety practices by making their employees use damaged container ramps that they had already determined to be too dangerous and/or defective to use.”
FedEx’s practices, the suit says, were designed to “increase its profits at the expense of placing Jessica James and others at risk of serious injury and/or death.”
The suit also claims that in the days before and on the morning James died, she’d complained to her supervisors.
“She told me that they had a meeting and said they could not afford to fix the ramp,” Cora James recalled. “I guess if they say all they got to pay if somebody dies is $20,000, they come out cheaper keeping the ramps.”
FedEx declined to answer any questions, citing pending litigation. But in a 2020 statement provided to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism following the 2019 death of FedEx temp worker Duntate Young, the company touted its commitment to safety.
“The safety and well-being of our team members is our top priority,” the statement said. “We annually invest millions of dollars in equipment and technology to prevent injuries and accidents.”
The words ring hollow to Peter Dooley, a certified industrial hygienist for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which promotes worker safety.
“They brag about their safety program. They brag about being such a great employer,” Dooley said. “This shows the reality of how dangerous their whole way of work is.”
James went to work at FedEx after graduating from Whitehaven High School in 2008. When she died she was a night side team lead, working in the international heavy weight trucking area.
“That girl loved FedEx,” her father, Walter James, said. “She lived and breathed for FedEx. She’d miss family events to work.”
The week before she was killed, James worked nearly 70 hours, according to FedEx wage records submitted to TOSHA.
When her parents moved in 2018 from Whitehaven to Horn Lake, Mississippi, James, 32, moved with them.
Some parents might bristle at an adult daughter still at home, but not Cora and Walter James. James was her mother’s prep cook at Thanksgiving, chopping vegetables and stirring sauces to spare Cora James’ carpal tunnel. She brought in the newspaper in the morning and, sometimes, breakfast.
And like many millennials, she was her parents’ tech support. The TV, the computer, even paying the utility bills online – all of that was James’ domain.
“Our fireplace hasn’t been lit since she died, because we don’t know how to,” Cora James said.
Most of James’ closest friends were coworkers, including Chelsey Wyatt and Jessica Guffin, who both work at FedEx. For fear the company would fire them for talking to a journalist, they agreed to be quoted only about their friendship with James.
“I heard Jessica before I ever actually met her,” Guffin recalled. “We would hear her yelling like, ‘Come on, come on, let’s go, let’s go!’ And I’d be like, ‘Why is this lady constantly hollering all of the time like that?’”
It was just James motivating her team – and the loud volume didn’t match her chill demeanor. “When you did see her,” remembered Wyatt, “you were like, ‘Oh my God, this voice is coming out of her.’”
“We just clicked,” Guffin said. “And then next thing you know, we were going on trips and going to concerts… Holidays became a big thing and birthdays became a big thing and next thing you know we family.”
On Guffin’s phone are photos and videos from trips to Las Vegas and New Orleans. It was James who made the playlists for road trips, James who was more likely to be behind the camera than in front of it, James who advised her friends on saving and investing, even sharing an Excel budget spreadsheet with Wyatt.
“I was like, ‘Jessica, I’ll get there one day, but I ain’t there yet.’ She was just like, ‘Okay, okay, okay. Well, just start writing. At least write it down,’” said Wyatt, who keeps the budgeting notebooks in her backpack.
Said Guffin: “Before me and Chelsey would move or make any type of financial moves or anything, we always asked Jessica.
“Jessica was like the foundation. She was what we all kind of aspired to be.”
James was just one of tens of thousands of laborers in the area’s transportation and material moving industry, which employs nearly 1 in 6 Memphis metro area workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.
But these jobs can be dangerous. The warehousing and storage industry’s 2021 injury rate of 5.5 per 100 workers was double the U.S. average rate of 2.7 per 100 workers, according to BLS reports. Between 2018 to 2021, the last year for which data is available, 117 work-related deaths occurred in the industry.
The city’s economic fortunes are inextricably linked to this industry – and more specifically, to FedEx, where at least three of James’ relatives still work. Headquartered in Memphis, the company employs about 35,000 in the Memphis metro area. That’s more than the number of employees at the next four largest non-government employers combined, according to the Memphis Business Journal.
The World Hub had more than 11,000 employees in 2019, and in 2018, supported more than $4 billion in local wages, in part by drawing many other companies to set up shop nearby.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hazards for FedEx workers have been growing. In its 2021 fiscal year, which runs from June 1, 2020, through May 30, 2021, the company had 15 work-related fatalities, according to its most recent annual report. In fiscal year 2020, there were three work-related fatalities; in fiscal year 2019, there were 10.
Injuries at the World Hub rose significantly in the year before James’ death, according to data the company sent to TOSHA. In 2021, there were 86 separate injuries, an almost 50% increase from 2020.
The TOSHA investigation into James’ death is more than 900 pages, much of it redacted as proprietary information or trade secrets.
It paints a picture of a company with little regard for keeping equipment in good shape or even ensuring workers couldn’t use broken-down gear. Workers hadn’t been properly trained to use some equipment, safety procedures weren’t enforced, and other safety rules, workers told TOSHA investigators, they weren’t familiar with.
If James had wanted to use a ramp in good condition, she would have had a hard time finding one: Of the 39 ramps used in this area, 38 were in disrepair, including missing tires, loose and torn decking, and frame damage, according to maintenance and repair records FedEx gave to TOSHA. That includes the ramp James used on Feb. 18, 2022. Of those 38 ramps, 27 were marked as not in service or waiting for repairs.
FedEx had a system for handling damaged ramps, also known as container ramps or yard ramps: Put them in the “ramp graveyard” until they were fixed. But the graveyard wasn’t fenced in or secure. And because the ramp graveyard wasn’t secure, any of those 27 ramps could have been – and likely were – in use.
Managers knew workers were taking damaged ramps from the graveyard, and at least one supervisor instructed a worker to do so.
“On the night of Jessica’s incident, about 5 hours prior to the incident, my Manager told me to go to the ‘ramp graveyard’ and bring back a ramp that wasn’t 100% but good enough to use,” the employee told TOSHA. “I did not see a ramp that was usable in the ramp graveyard, so I did not return with one.”
At least four times in the two months before James was killed, FedEx squandered opportunities to repair or remove the damaged ramp that contributed to James’ death.
On Dec. 30, 2021, a preventative maintenance inspection found that the ramp needed repairs for “cracks, safety chains, grating U-bolts and clips for security, wheel assemblies, tires, decal reflectors and repack wheel bearing,” according to the TOSHA report.
FedEx’s inspection records noted that the ramp’s decking needed to be repaired or replaced and that a wheel was missing. “Waiting on vendor to pick up for repairs,” read FedEx’s inspection form.
A Jan. 6, 2022, repair order showed that only the safety chains were fixed – but not that the ramp was out of service. Then, on Feb. 17, 2022, less than 24 hours before James’ death, another repair order showed that the safety chains had been repaired again, but nothing else, TOSHA found.
“(T)he obvious damages to the yard ramp including the missing wheel and loose & damaged grating, would have been in plain view when the safety chains were repaired on 02/17/2022; however, the yard ramp was not removed from service at that time,” the TOSHA investigation said.
The last chance came about 25 minutes before the incident, when an employee was making his rounds in the heavy weight area. “Through reasonable diligence,” the TOSHA investigation noted, he should have noticed the ramp’s damage and taken the ramp out of service. He did not.
CJ, a former FedEx employee who did not want their full name used for fear of retaliation, remembers getting the early morning call that James had died.
“The first thing that came to mind was the raggedy – excuse my French – raggedy-ass ramps.”
Forklift operators had no choice but to use broken ramps, CJ said, and would attempt their own fixes.
“There’s been plenty of times we had to use plywood to cover up a hole,” CJ said. “We had to make do with what we could.
“I can truly say safety was secondary.”
Reggie Carter, a longtime forklift safety instructor, remembers learning about Jessica James’ death.
“After I heard that the young lady had lost her life, I reached out to FedEx and I spoke to a lady in HR and offered my services.”
FedEx never called him back, he said. Although FedEx managers may have instructed workers to use the ramps, “there’s no safe way” for even the most skilled operator to drive on a ramp in that condition, Carter said.
“If FedEx would have done right by fixing their raggedy ramps, she would still be alive.”
TOSHA asked for proof that damaged ramps had been fixed, but FedEx didn’t provide any documentation.
“It’s obvious that they didn’t find documents about the repairs, because they weren’t made,” Dooley said.
A FedEx employee TOSHA interviewed after the incident suggested that cost may have been a deterrent. “I was told by a Manager that the Department was trying to purchase a new ramp from their budget but in the meantime to keep using the damaged ramps that were in the ‘best’ condition,” the employee said.
According to online ramp sellers and Jeff Mann, who as The Yard Ramp Guy has bought, sold and rented new and used ramps for nearly 13 years, a nearly identical new ramp would have cost FedEx about $20,000. That’s the amount of revenue FedEx earned every seven seconds in 2022.
“There’s only two reasons to have a yard ramp – increase your efficiency, increase your safety, ” Mann said. “If you cannot have both, you shouldn’t have the ramp.”
While TOSHA cited FedEx for “serious” violations, a workplace safety expert said a harsher classification is warranted.
“It’s pretty clear that the company knew that this ramp was severely compromised in terms of safety and it was being used,” Dooley said. “That’s, in essence, a willful violation, especially when it results in a workplace fatality.”
Since James’ death, FedEx has put a fence around the ramp graveyard and established a process to make sure damaged ramps aren’t still being used. It redesigned its ramp training course for heavy weight-area forklift operators. There’s also a new safety group that will meet biweekly to do “regular safety blitzes” in the area James worked in.
All the forklifts in that area are getting new seat belt interlock devices: Forklifts won’t start or move unless the seat belt has been fastened.
And, sources say, FedEx has fixed or replaced the ramps.
“If it weren’t for her, change would not have ever been made. It would have never been broadcast, nobody would have never known what was going on, nobody would have known anything,” CJ said. “I just hate that my friend had to be an example.”
James’ funeral was held at a South Memphis funeral home, with mourners the family didn’t recognize.
“When I walked in, and I saw all those white people, I said, ‘We went in the wrong place,’” Cora James said. “It was like two rows of the higher managers.”
Shannon Brown, FedEx Express’ senior vice president of U.S. operations and chief diversity officer, offered words of condolences, but also high praise for James’ work ethic. (Brown has since retired.)
“Go be like Jessica when you leave here today,” said Brown, who is Black. “Go do something above and beyond, and when you do it, remember Jessica.”
His words were bittersweet. Being persistent, Cora James said, cost James her life.
“She was stubborn,” her mother said. “She was going to get the job done.
“I wish she had just given up.”
James’ death has unmoored her family and sent her friends reeling.
Four of her closest friends – including Guffin and Wyatt – served as pallbearers, but their friendship isn’t quite the same.
“Our friend group, we hold on tight to each other, but in a sense, we were low-key dismantled,” Guffin said.
They had travel savings accounts and big plans: “We were supposed to do Paris and Hawaii in 2022,” Guffin said. “We canceled all that once Jessica passed.”
On Cora and Walter James’ great room wall are two huge photos of James. One has the Eiffel Tower photoshopped into the background, making a dream come true in death. The funeral home wasn’t sure if the family would be able to have an open casket, so the photos were made to display at the service.
Assuming she would die first, Cora James had told James about the assets her parents would leave behind. “I told her where everything was and what to do, because she lived here,” Cora James said. “I had prepared for her.”
But after James’ death, Cora James was stunned at how much life insurance her daughter had and how much she’d saved for retirement. “She prepared for me and I didn’t know. I didn’t expect that.”
It was money that Cora James didn’t want to spend. Blood money.
Because James had no dependents, the worker’s comp death benefit was $20,000, but it came with unacceptable terms.
“When I read the papers, it said if I signed these papers that FedEx is no longer responsible,” Cora James said. “So I didn’t sign it… It’s never been about the money for me. I wanted FedEx to admit that they’re wrong.”
So does James’ oldest sister, Kimberly Briggs, who has worked at FedEx several times over the years. “In the pictures, the report, everything shows that FedEx is responsible,” she said. “You know you’re at fault. You know what the problem was. Take responsibility.”
To her, justice looks like FedEx committing to safety and valuing its employees – and she wants the company to pay. “If I can’t have her here, then damn it, you’re going to give me the money to keep her memory alive,” Briggs said.
Plus, she wants an apology. “I need somebody to be remorseful. You need to talk to me and I need to see some tears.”
Said Cora James: “They don’t look at the families that’s lost loved ones. They just employ you, and they replace you. But we can’t replace her.”
On Feb. 18, the anniversary of James’ death, more than a dozen relatives and friends gathered at her grave in a Whitehaven cemetery. In the center of the black headstone is James’ name. Her parents’ names are on either side, waiting.
Standing behind the waist-high stone slab, Walter James unzipped a black case carrying a well-worn Bible. Under a bright sky, he read Psalm 23 as red and silver balloons danced in the chilly air.
Cora James visits her baby girl’s grave often to freshen up the flowers.
Sometimes, when she is home and wants to feel close to her daughter, she heads upstairs.
There, James’ bedroom is much as she left it. There’s her red and black bedspread and lining one wall are boxes of Nikes. Baseball caps with perfectly flat brims fill the closet.
Back downstairs, James’ heavy work coat hangs on a rack just inside the front door. Draped over the banister is the purple tote bag James carried to work.
It reads: “FedEx Cares.”
How we reported this story
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism rarely uses anonymous sources, but when we do, it’s because the information could not be gathered any other way. We grant sources anonymity to protect them from harm.
This story is based primarily on the state’s investigation into FedEx, and is buttressed by interviews with sources who did not want their names used for fear of retaliation from FedEx.
The reporter knows all sources’ names and identities and has verified that the source was in a position to have direct knowledge of the information being reported.
The reporter asked FedEx for an interview, but FedEx declined to make anyone available and asked instead for a list of questions. The reporter submitted a lengthy list of questions and gave FedEx an additional day to reply. FedEx then said that it would have no comment, citing pending litigation.
This differs from FedEx’s response in 2020 after the death of Duntate Young, a FedEx temp worker killed in 2019. Young’s family sued FedEx Nov. 12, 2020, and more than a month later, on Dec. 18, 2020, the company provided a 550-word statement declining to talk specifically about Young’s death, again citing pending litigation, but outlining the company’s safety measures.
“We annually invest millions of dollars in equipment and technology to prevent injuries and accidents,” the statement read in part.
The National Council for Occupational Safety has a guide for families whose loved one was killed in a workplace incident. The guide includes advice on obtaining worker’s compensation and obtaining relevant government documents on investigations into the worker’s death. Read the guide here.
MLK50 continues to investigate worker safety at FedEx and other warehouse and shipping companies in Memphis. If you’re a worker who has a story or if you know someone who does, we’d like to know:
•Were you ever injured on the job? If so, how? Did you report the injury? If yes, we’d like to know what steps were taken by supervisors to address the incident.
•Did you feel well-trained for your role?
•Did you lose money or employment because of the injury? If yes, we’d like to know if you filed for workers’ compensation, short- or long-term disability, or state or federal unemployment benefits.
To share a story with us, please get in touch:
If you have documents – such as incident reports filed with FedEx or another warehouse or shipping company, documentation of injuries on the job, or copies of applications for worker’s compensation, disability, or unemployment benefits – you can share those with us securely using the U.S. Postal Service. Mail documents or digital files to MLK50 at 1910 Madison, #2220, Memphis, TN 38104. There is no need to use a return address on the envelope.
MLK50 reporter Jacob Steimer, who is also a corps member with Report for America, contributed to this story. RFA is a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.