California Bill Could Alter Amazon Labor Practices

The bill would rein in production quotas at warehouses that critics say are excessive and force workers to forgo bathroom breaks.

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Among the pandemic’s biggest economic winners is Amazon, which nearly doubled its annual profit last year to $21 billion and is on pace to far exceed that total this year.

The profits flowed from the millions of Americans who value the convenience of quick home delivery, but critics complain that the arrangement comes at a large cost to workers, whom they say the company pushes to physical extremes.

That labor model could begin to change under a California bill that would require warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose productivity quotas for workers, whose progress they often track using algorithms. .

“The supervisory function is being taken over by computers,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “But they’re not taking into account the human factor.”

The bill, which the Assembly passed in May and the State Senate is expected to vote on this week, would prohibit any quota that prevents workers from taking state-mandated breaks or using the bathroom when needed, or that keeps employers from complying with health and safety laws.

The legislation has drawn intense opposition from business groups, which argue that it would lead to an explosion of costly litigation and that it punishes a whole industry for the perceived excesses of a single employer.

“They’re going after one company, but at the same time they’re pulling everyone else in the supply chain under this umbrella,” said Rachel Michelin, the president of the California Retailers Association, on whose board Amazon sits.

Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the bill but said in a statement that “performance targets are determined based on actual employee performance over a period of time” and that they take into account the employee’s experience as well as health and safety considerations.

Terminations for performance issues are rare — less than 1 percent,” Ms. Nantel added.

The company faces growing scrutiny of its treatment of workers, including an expected ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that it unlawfully interfered in a union vote at an Alabama warehouse. The finding could prompt a new election there, though Amazon has said it would appeal to preserve the original vote, in which it prevailed.

In June, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters passed a resolution committing the union to provide “all resources necessary” to organize Amazon workers, partly by pressuring the company through political channels. Teamsters officials have taken part in successful efforts to deny Amazon a tax abatement in Indiana and approval for a facility in Colorado and are backers of the California legislation.

Both sides appear to regard the fight over Amazon’s quotas as having high stakes. “We know that the future of work is falling into this algorithm, A.I. kind of aspect,” said Ms. Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “If we don’t intervene now, other companies will be the next stage.”

Ms. Michelin, the retail association president, emphasized that the data was “proprietary information” and said the bill’s proponents “want that data because it helps unionize distribution centers.”

A report by the Strategic Organizing Center, a group backed by four labor unions, shows that Amazon’s serious-injury rate nationally was almost double that of the rest of the warehousing industry in 2020 and more than twice that of warehouses at Walmart, a top competitor.

Asked about the findings, Ms. Nantel, the Amazon spokeswoman, did not directly address them but said that the company recently entered into a partnership with a nonprofit safety advocacy group to develop ways of preventing musculoskeletal injuries. She also said that Amazon had invested over $300 million this year in safety measures, like redesigning workstations.

Amazon employees have frequently complained that supervisors push them to work at speeds that wear them down physically.

“There were a lot of grandmothers,” one worker said in a study underwritten by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, another backer of the California bill. Managers would “come to these older women, and say, ‘Hey, I need you to speed up,’ and then you could see in her face she almost wants to cry. She’s like, ‘This is the fastest my body can literally go.”‘

Yesenia Barrera, a former Amazon worker in California, said that managers told her she needed to pull 200 items an hour from a conveyor belt, unbox them and scan them. She said she was usually able to reach this target only by minimizing her bathroom use.

“That would be me ignoring using restroom-type things to be able to make it,” Ms. Barrera said in an interview for this article. “When the bell would ring for a break, I felt like I had to do a few more items before I took off.”

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An employee sorted items at a Staten Island warehouse in May. Workers have complained that supervisors push them to work at speeds that wear them down.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Edward Flores, faculty director of the Community and Labor Center at the University of California, Merced, says repetitive strain injuries have been a particular problem in the warehousing industry as companies have automated their operations.

“You’re responding to the speed at which a machine is moving,” said Dr. Flores, who has studied injuries in the industry. “The greater reliance on robotics, the higher incidence of repetitive motions and thus repetitive injuries.” Amazon has been a leader in adopting warehouse robotics.

California plays an outsize role in the e-commerce and distribution industry, both because of its huge economy and status as a tech hub and because it is home to the ports through which much of Amazon’s imported inventory arrives. The Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles, has one of the highest concentrations of Amazon fulfillment centers in the country.

Ms. Gonzalez said that when she met with Amazon officials after introducing a similar bill last year, they denied using quotas, saying that they relied instead on goals and that workers were not punished for failing to meet them.

During a meeting a few days before the Assembly passed this year’s bill, she said, Amazon officials acknowledged that they could do more to promote the health and safety of their workers but did not offer specific proposals beyond coaching employees on how to be more productive.

At one point during the more recent meeting, Ms. Gonzalez recalled, an Amazon official raised concerns that some employees would abuse more generous allotments of time for using the bathroom before another official weighed in to de-emphasize the point.

“Someone else tried to walk it back,” she said. “It’s often said quietly. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it.”

The bill’s path has always appeared rockier in the State Senate, where amendments have weakened it. The bill no longer directs the state’s occupational safety and health agency to develop a rule preventing warehouse injuries that result from overwork or other physical stress.

Instead, it gives the state labor commissioner’s office access to data about quotas and injuries so it can step up enforcement. Workers would also be able to sue employers to eliminate overly strict quotas.

Ms. Gonzalez said she felt confident about the Senate vote, which must come by the close of the legislative session on Friday, but business groups are still working hard to derail it.

Ms. Michelin, the retailer group president, said that the Senate committees’ changes had made the bill more palatable and that her members might support a measure that gave more resources to regulators to enforce health and safety rules. But she said they had serious concerns about the way the bill empowers workers to sue their employers.

As long as that provision remains in the bill, she said, “we will never support it.”

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