My United Van Lines Story
It is 3:46 a.m. on December 12, 2012. It has been 203 days and 18 hours since representatives from Thomas Transfer & Storage, an agent of United Van Lines, arrived at our new house in Hutchinson.
It should have been a great day. We were moving out of a one-bedroom studio apartment, where my husband and I, our 16-year-old daughter, and our 80-pound black lab had been rubbing elbows in about 800 square feet of living space to a wonderful old five bedroom house built in 1929.
I was especially excited by the prospect of having furniture again. For more than a month, our furniture had all been in storage in Wichita and we had been living with four folding chairs and our queen size bed as the primary components of the space to which we came home to at the end of every day. Even though we had sold quite a bit of our furniture before the move, As Maureen O'Hara's character said in The Quiet Man, I was ready to "have my things about me again."
Well, for John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara fans, you know it didn't go so smoothly for O'Hara's character, Mary Kate Danaher. A great deal of character development transpired before her things finally arrived near the end of that great movie.
I, too, have had my character tested, my heart bruised and my patience tried. The difference is, some of my things will never arrive.
A box containing some of my most precious things was one of the items that didn't come off the truck that day in May. And other things I cherished were broken and damaged beyond repair in what appeared to be totally callous disregard for our property. It is hard to imagine how so much harm could come to one household's furnishings while they were being handled by professionals. And it's hard to understand how one move could still yield dreams like the one that woke me up at 3 a.m. with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat half a year after this move should be behind me.
I thought that be telling my story here, I could exorcise the sadness that hangs over me and, if by chance, you are a prospective customer of United Van Lines, I could warn you away. Let me begin at the beginning and the ironic reason I chose United in the first place.
The decision to move from our home in Arizona to Kansas came while Mary Charlotte and I were visiting Hutchinson over her spring break in March. You can read about why Greg was living in Kansas in the post A Man's Gotta Do What a Man's Gotta Do (and you'll also think, I'm obsessed with John Wayne, which I'm not, but that's okay). We spent four days of her spring break in Hutchinson--long enough for me to have a very intriguing interview for a job I accepted a week later, and for MC to tour the high school and to decide she wouldn't mind living in Hutchinson.
The second half of our spring break week, we drove from Kansas to Montana. I was returning to Miles City, my hometown, to pick up family heirlooms I had chosen that had belonged to my mother. My dad had sold the house to move into a retirement community and we needed to get our things out.
I hadn't been home since January, when I had chosen the items in a brief trip home with my sisters. I never really had time to reflect on any of them in January, nor did MC and I make that time, as we had one night to get everything boxed and in the vehicle before we headed back to Arizona. I remember briefly telling my daughter the story of a few of the items and then realizing I just didn't have time to reminisce about heirlooms, we could do that when we unpacked them in wherever our new house would be. (By the time we got to Miles City, we'd decided to move to Kansas soon so Mary Charlotte could finish her sophomore year in Hutchinson and have some friends before going into the summer.)
We loaded up about eight boxes of artwork, my mother's antique spoon collection, plates that had belonged to my great grandmother and great, great aunts, china my grandmother had painted, crystal glassware and other things that had enormous sentimental value...everything from my great grandfathers wire rimmed glasses to a circa 1945 ash tray I remember my parents bridge club friends using regularly.
When we got back to Arizona on March 16, I had one day to visit with a realtor before I had to head back out on my tour of duty as a facilitator for Mazda sales training in Florida and Georgia. Sunday March 18, I flew to Florida while MC and the realtor put a For Sale sign in our yard. When I was home for two days a week later, I met with a representative from United. I chose the company based on an experience I had with one of their agents in Montana. King United out of Billings had moved items for us twice and also handled the move for my dad and moved items for my four sisters. I thought very highly of their care and the manager's kind demeanor.
Note to self: slow down and do your research you dork!
March 29th, I finished my Mazda assignment and returned home to a house that had a contract on it. April 6th, packers arrived to pack the kitchen, dining room and a few other things like lamps. I had to identify for the packers some of the things I considered high value in order to comply with the top level of protection we had purchased to insure our artwork, furniture and some of those things I mentioned above, would all be adequately covered. I had already told the United salesperson who estimated our moving expense that my mother's sterling silver, our dining room furniture and bedroom set would be considered "high value." To me, that meant if anything happened to it, they had to replace it with a new item of corresponding value. It's not that simple.
I made a critical mistake that those of you who move often will gasp over. I left the house while the packers were there. When I came home, one of the packers explained that he had repacked those boxes of heirlooms from Montana into his heavier dish packs, including the one that contained the high value sterling silver. Because it was done while I was gone, I had no idea what items went into the box. Bear in mind, some of those things came directly out of my mother's china cabinet and had never even been in my home. And now, they were neatly sealed in two large United Van Lines boxes--one of which now had a big HV on it to signify its High Value. I never saw that box again.
April 9th, it and all our other possessions were loaded into a truck and taken to Thomas Moving & Storage in Wichita to wait while we looked for a place to live. May 22nd, when the truck arrived at our curb, my little nightmare began.
I was told to stand by the front door with a sheet the driver called the bingo sheet. As he and the other three movers came in and out with items, they would call out the number of the little colored moving tags. The tags were yellow and orange. I was supposed to track the color and the number. I think one color represented the boxes I'd packed myself. The catch was, some of those boxes were used. I had picked them up for free or discount at the United facility in Mesa. So part way through the process, we realized that some of the old tags were very similar in color and that some of the numbers may have been misread. But this did not stop the perpetual motion of the process. In fact, anytime I left my post to try to direct where furniture was going (Greg had left to get the cashiers check for nearly $15,000--the move was roughly $11,000 and storage for a month was just over $3,000) it was obvious that I was irritating the driver because I was throwing off the system.
Just after Greg returned, the furniture began to be unloaded. First in was our dining room table. Now I know it's wrong to love things, but I love my Stickley dining room set. I was absolutely delighted to see it coming through the front door. Then, they took the pads off.
It's hard to describe the scratches across the top of the table. It was as if it hadn't had pads on it at all and that something heavy and sharp had scraped across it in three different places. We were all a bit taken aback. Within moments, the buffet came into the room and the story was the same.
Now, bear in mind my husband is an attorney. As we were surveying our options, the driver chose to ask Greg for the cashier's check so they could keep unloading. As you might guess, my husband's response was that he would not convey payment for something that was taking a turn for the worse. He wanted to make sure nothing else was damaged. The driver explained that they shouldn't have taken anything off the truck before receiving the check and that he'd be in big trouble with "the office."
We suggested he call "the office" and ask them what to do. He handed the phone to me and a woman explained that, indeed, they would stop unloading and take our items back to Wichita if we didn't hand over the payment immediately. I said, "but what protection do I have if more things are damaged?" She said...and I am quoting exactly, "Your contract will protect you. That is what it's for." So we made the critical error of paying them the full amount.
To shorten my story somewhat, before the movers left, it was discovered that severe damage had occurred to three pieces of Stickley furniture and one box.In fact, you could hear the broken glass in the box when they brought it in. Turns out, glass shelves from the china cabinet and glass bricks (yes...real bricks...I use them to put food trays on for buffets) had been packed on the top of my great grandmother's crystal pitcher and glasses. As the packers opened that box and revealed the shattered glass, I burst into hysterical tears.
It's hard to explain how I feel about these heirlooms. I guess I think that they aren't really mine alone, but are my whole family's. So I feel a sense of stewardship that goes beyond having a thing. I feel as if I am the keeper of the story that those things convey.
Well...the story conveyed by the sterling silver spoon collection ended with this move. I will always remember the times I polished each of the more than 36 spoons with my mother. I even talked my friend Denise into helping me on occasion. I liked the idea that the spoons were collected by my great great aunts, great grandmother and grandmother. Friends would give one another spoons as tokens of affection and some came into the collection as souvenirs of travels over the years. The most contemporary piece in the collection was one my sister added when she came back from a high school exchange to Peru. That spoon had a llama on the handle.
The box containing the spoons, my mother's Wallace Grand Baroque sterling flatware she and my father received as wedding gifts in 1945, beautifully painted plates that belonged to my great aunts, the glasses and more was lost. The driver identified it as missing from the damn bingo sheet (sorry, but really, it was a really awful process) before he left. Because it was a high value box, he was very determined to find it. He and his crew looked at every single box they had unloaded and couldn't find it. They were honestly apologetic, but they got back in their truck and left. Their part of the story was done, and mine was just beginning.
Of course, I called Thomas Moving & Storage and talked to my contact there about the missing box and the damage. He promised he would look for the box and call me right back. I called him back two days later. He hadn't had time to look yet, but he'd get his guys right on it. He understood, he said, how it would feel to lose something of such sentimental value. He told me his father had passed away and that if anyone lost the stuff he had of his dad's he'd be really upset. So he promised to look. He even mentioned surveillance tapes. And I felt hopeful.
Several days later, I called him back again, and he told me they just couldn't find it. I asked if maybe it would help if we offered a reward. He told me something about background checks, doing the best that they could and that we just had a really bad move. He said more than a page and a half of issues were noted when our things came off the truck and into storage...things that "just didn't look like they were packed right." And he said all of our items were checked into the warehouse, including the "High Value" box. He told me he'd call me back if he heard anything about my box. I think, being the astute reader you are, you've caught on to how often he called me back previously and can guess that I never heard from him again.
The claims process involved getting a form from the corporate office in North Dakota, which I then submitted to a claims adjustor. After three weeks of radio silence, I called United to find out what was happening. I was told it was a busy time of year and they'd get to my claim when they could. She also said I should find photos, insurance documentation, credit card receipts or invoices to prove what was in the box and its value along with the value of the damaged items.
As we continued unpacking, we realized another box had been lost. It contained things like our cordless phones, a set of wind chimes I had from Montana (I am incredibly sentimental) a quilted wall hanging, a gift a friend in Arizona had made for me...it was one of the last boxes packed and contained an interesting assortment of things. Of course, I'll never know exactly what because it is lost. Oh...but I can't claim it because it didn't show up as missing on the bingo sheet and I didn't report that it was missing to the driver. Therefore, United believes I made the box up.
Somewhere, my claims adjustor is probably just waking up. Maybe on her way to work this morning, she'll pass Christmas trees in the front window of people's homes. She wouldn't find one at our house, as ours was bent at a 90 degree angle in the back of a United Van Lines moving truck. We still have the tree, as we will have to surrender all damaged items in order to ever receive compensation from them. I guess I could set the tree up, but I don't have that kind of dark humor.
Let's see...the cast iron leg was broken off an outdoor chaise lounge, two propane patio lamps were bent as if a tornado picked them up, a 9' x 11' wool rug was cut along the side through the backing and the rug (it's amazing how it could even happen) an office desk was scratched beyond repair and of course....there's the dining room and bedroom furniture. A dear man tried (for three months) to repair the table and buffet, but it was returned to us the first of November and both he and we agreed, it is not at all "like new."
So, those are the facts...the damages if you will. The manner in which United responded is probably best covered in another post. It falls into the Worst Possible Customer Service Ever category. I guess, since I was going to write a post about the importance of saying "I'm sorry" following the last post I wrote about forgiveness, I could start with that. United never said, "we are sorry." They have never exhibited any care or concern.
They did offer a monetary settlement, which we initially rejected because the adjustor was going to give me $18 a spoon for the spoon collection. You see...I only have two blurry photos of the spoons, and my great aunts didn't keep credit card receipts showing what they paid per spoon.
If I sound a little bitter, I think it is just a combination of deep sadness and fatigue. The thought of all I lost in that box can still make me cry, and I'm not the kind of person who cries for myself.
United's second offer increased what they were willing to give us for the spoon collection to a level I actually thought was fair, but they reduced by half the amount they were willing to pay for 12 place settings of Wallace Grand Baroque sterling. Sorry...I know it's obnoxious to write that out each time. It's a bit pretentious to even talk about owning things like sterling flatware, but I had it because it was my mom's, and it was of significant value...definitely not the less than $5,000 my friend at United thought would cover the "of comparable quality" replacement.
So, when I reached the end of my rope with the United Claims department, my husband stepped in. He wrote them a letter explaining that they could provide the replacement of the sterling flatware to us, and that if we accepted it as comparable quality, we would accept the rest of their settlement (except for the furniture, which at that time, was still in for attempted repair.) We just didn't want to be put in the position of bearing the responsibility for replacing the sterling ourselves with what we thought was less than adequate funding to do so.
The response from the claims agent was that she was going to get back to us by the 26th...whether that was of September or October is a bit of a blur to me now. All I know is that she never got back to my husband. She just conveniently fell back into radio silence.
So, we decided to sue them. They were served two weeks ago. We heard from their attorneys yesterday that they want to move the matter into Federal Court. That is going to cost us money, because we will have to hire an attorney with federal court experience. But I guess that is all that we are left to do. We will not go away.
Will United learn anything from this? No. They don't care. Since the 22nd of May, every action they have taken has been in their interest, not the consumer's. Nothing in the process, even with the highest level of replacement protection money could buy (don't call it moving insurance, the claims people will spend a lot of time reading to you from a script about how they don't provide insurance) works in the interest of the consumer.
And yes, I have had positive moving experiences. And yes, I know there are good people in the moving business. But you can not convince me for one second that anything about the United Van Lines claims process is customer focused. And if I ever meet Mr. Thomas, I'd love to know if he has anything in his house that has any special significance to him. I mean...it's all just stuff, right?
In the end, that is the truth in this. It is just stuff. It could have been lost in a flood or fire. I know I have all the things in life that really count...a priceless, healthy, happy family. And I know that someday, I won't wake up at 3 a.m. from this weird dream where my sister is waiting for me to choose an item from what are apparently heirlooms in a house that looks nothing like our parents. In the dream, I walk past a single silver spoon and I say, "it's not mine." That's when I woke up this morning.
Now it's just before 6 a.m. I feel exhausted, but somehow a bit better for the sharing of this tale. If you're getting ready to move, interview lots of companies and read all the fine print. And never trust anyone who tells you a contract will protect you.
In just few minutes, my coffee pot will come on automatically and the day will begin. And it will be a day full of good work opportunities, the chance to feel the brisk Midwestern December air on my cheeks, and countless blessings. The kind we can't pack in a box, and the ones we truly can't live without.
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