California lawmakers have passed a first-of-its-kind legislation that would give Amazon and other warehouse workers new power to fight speed quotas, which critics say have forced workers to skip bathroom breaks and skirt safety measures.
The bill, if signed by the governor, could also make public more comprehensive details about the demands Amazon makes of its warehouse staff, specifically about the impact of speed quotas on the workers' health.
"It's the first step in changing working conditions in the warehouse," said Veena Dubal, an expert on labor law and technology at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who supports the legislation.
Warehouses employ a ballooning workforce, largely thanks to Amazon, now the second-largest private employer in the U.S. with more than 950,000 workers. Tracked by algorithms, Amazon warehouse staff rush to pack and ship a never-ending stream of shopping orders to be delivered in a matter of hours.
California's Assembly Bill 701 asserts that productivity demands cannot come at the expense of health and safety, for example by pushing workers to skirt safety techniques or skip rest breaks to which they're entitled. If that happens, the bill would give current and former workers more legal pathways to appeal them.
The bill's second key theme is transparency, giving workers, their representatives and government officials more access to detailed records of quotas and workers' actual rates.
The legislation, opposed by retail and business groups, will soon head to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has not said whether he supports it. Newsom's office did not respond to NPR's inquiry.
Amazon has drawn scrutiny for its workers' injury rates
Hurry, hurry, hurry.
Yesenia Barrera said that's how it felt when she worked at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California. For 10 hours a day, she would bend, twist, reach, scan, unwrap, rewrap — hoping to hit 200 items an hour.
"I rarely ever saw anyone leave to use the restroom unless they talked to someone, like 'Do you mind scanning this item every three minutes just so my time off task doesn't accumulate? Cover for me,' " said Barrera, now an organizer with the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.
Amazon carefully watches "time off task," which the company says is to monitor for "issues with the tools that people use," but also to identify underperforming workers. Too much time off task after a while and the algorithm can flag you, though Amazon says firings over performance are rare, less than 1% for operations employees.
Still, many workers, such as Barrera, have argued the pace inside Amazon warehouses can be unhealthy and unsustainable. Investigations by news organizations and by the labor-backed Strategic Organizing Center have found that the rate of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses has been nearly double the industry average.
California Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez says that's what prompted her to write AB 701, which supporters hope could pave the way for other states to follow.
"We're absolutely targeting the practices of Amazon that are being picked up, quite frankly, by other retailers," says Gonzalez, who previously spearheaded California's high-profile law that sought to make it harder for gig companies such as Uber to hire workers as contractors.
Repetitive exertion raises the risks of injury
For a while, Amazon said its higher injury rates were because it got more diligent about reporting than its rivals. This year, in his last letter to shareholders as CEO, founder Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon has hired 6,200 safety professionals and pledged $300 million to work safety projects for 2021.
Bezos also said about 40% of Amazon's work-related injuries were musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, which tend to be recorded as sprains, strains, back pain and other injuries. They are often a product of exertion plus repetition in an awkward, unnatural position. In the U.S., they account for over half of all nonfatal workplace injuries where workers wind up in an emergency room.
Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the risk of injury is present across warehouses and factories, adding: "And in (Amazon's) case, obviously, one of the major causes of the musculoskeletal injuries are the quotas, which cause an unhealthy pace of work."
Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty told NPR that workers can do some activities involving "short mental and physical breaks like stretching" without accruing "time off task." She also argued the company's demographics "skewed" its injury data: Counter to what some might expect, she said, workers ages 18 to 24 and those new on the job were found more likely "to claim a work-related MSD," and Amazon employs a lot of younger workers new to warehousing.
Business groups say the bill casts too wide a net
Amazon took no official stance on California's AB 701, but business groups are fighting it, saying the new rules would unleash a torrent of lawsuits against many industries.
Rachel Michelin, who heads the California Retailers Association, said productivity quotas were proprietary information and suggested that the bill's true nature was to boost labor organizing efforts.
"If there is a business that is not living up to the workplace standards, they should be held accountable — we don't disagree with that," Michelin said. "But do we need this broad, sweeping legislation ... that impacts every aspect of the supply chain in California? I don't think so."
California's Republican lawmakers have also argued that companies would be forced to raise prices to offset the costs of the new rules. Michelin and other critics said they would support a plan to boost financing of California OSHA to step up its enforcement of safety rules.
An earlier version of the bill had planned to direct the state OSHA to write specific new rules for warehouses to prevent injuries. The plan, which would have taken years, was scrapped in negotiations in favor of other stepped-up enforcement by state regulators.
Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.