Johannes Ezell/AFP/Getty Images
California lawmakers have passed first-of-its-kind legislation that would give Amazon and other warehouse workers new authority to fight speed quotas, which critics say have forced workers to skip restroom breaks and avoid safety measures.
The bill, if signed by the governor, could release more extensive details about the demands Amazon makes for warehouse employees, specifically about the impact of speed quotas on workers’ health.
“It’s the first step in changing working conditions in the warehouse,” said Vina Dobal, an expert in labor law and technology at the University of California, Hastings, who supports the legislation.
Warehouses employ a bloated workforce, thanks in large part to Amazon, which is now the second largest private employer in the United States with more than 950,000 workers. By tracking algorithms, Amazon warehouse employees rush to pack and ship an endless stream of shopping orders to be delivered within hours.
California Assembly Bill 701 It asserts that productivity demands cannot come at the expense of health and safety, for example by prompting workers to avoid safety techniques or skip the rest periods to which they are entitled. If that happens, the bill would give current and former workers more legal pathways to appeal.
The bill’s second major theme is transparency, giving workers, their representatives, and government officials more access to detailed records of workers’ actual quotas and rates.
The legislation, which retail groups and businesses have opposed, will soon go to Governor Gavin Newsom, who has not said whether he supports it. Newsom’s office did not respond to an NPR inquiry.
Amazon has been scrutinized for its worker injury rates
Faster, faster, faster.
Yesenia Barrera says that’s how it felt when she worked at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California. For ten hours a day, she would bend, twist, reach, check, untie, rewrap—hopefully, she’d make up to 200 items an hour.
Parreira said, “I’ve rarely seen anyone leave to use the restroom unless they’re talking to someone, like ‘Would you mind clearing this item every three minutes just so my job doesn’t pile on vacation?'” Organized with the Warehouse Workers Resource Center.
Amazon is carefully monitoring “mission leave,” which the company says is monitoring “issues with tools people are using,” but also to identify underperforming workers. It takes a long time to stop the task after a while and the algorithm can report you, although Amazon says performance shootings are rare, less than 1% for operations staff.
However, several workers, such as Barrera, have argued that the pace within Amazon warehouses can be unhealthy and unsustainable. Investigations by news organizations By subsidized workers Strategic Organizing Center I found that the rate of serious infections in Amazon warehouses was nearly double industry average.
California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez says that’s what prompted her to write AB 701, which supporters hope will pave the way for other states to follow.
says Gonzalez, who previously led Amazon’s practices high-ranking law Which sought to make it more difficult for large companies like Uber to hire workers as contractors.
Repetitive exertion increases the risk of injury.
For a while, Amazon said the higher infection rates were because it had become more careful in reporting on its competitors. this year, In his recent letter to shareholders as CEOFounder Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon has hired 6,200 safety professionals and pledged $300 million to work on safety projects for 2021.
Bezos also said that about 40% of Amazon’s work injuries were musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which are often recorded as sprains, strains, back pain and other injuries. They are often the product of effort as well as repetition of an awkward and unnatural situation. In the United States, they account for more than half Of all non-fatal injuries in the workplace where workers end up in the emergency room.
The risk of injury exists in warehouses and factories, said Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, adding: “And in (Amazon’s) case, it is clear that one of the main causes of musculoskeletal injuries is rations, which leads to an unhealthy pace of work. “.
Amazon spokeswoman Rachel Leite told NPR that workers can do some activities that include “short mental and physical rest periods like stretching” without counting “time off work.” She also argued that the company’s demographics “skewed” the injury data: Contrary to what some might expect, she said, workers aged 18-24 and those new to the job were found likely to “claim work-related MSD,” and Amazon It employs a lot of new younger workers in warehouses.
Business groups say the bill casts a very broad net.
Amazon has not taken any official position on AB 701 in California, but business groups are fighting it, saying the new rules will unleash a torrent of lawsuits against several industries.
Rachel Michelin, who chairs the California Retailers Association, said the productivity quotas were proprietary information and suggested the true nature of the bill was to strengthen labor regulation efforts.
“If there is a business that doesn’t adhere to workplace standards, it needs to be held accountable — we don’t disagree with that,” he said, “but do we need this broad and comprehensive legislation…that affects every aspect of the California supply chain? I don’t think so. “
California Republican lawmakers have also argued that companies will have to raise prices to offset the costs of the new rules. Michelin and other critics say they would support a plan to boost California’s OSHA funding to ramp up its enforcement of safety rules.
An earlier version of the bill had planned to direct OSHA for the state to write new rules specific to warehouses to prevent injuries. The plan, which could have taken years, was scrapped in negotiations in favor of increased enforcement by government regulators.
Editor’s note: Amazon is among NPR’s financial backers.