California Senate Passes Bill Reining In Amazon Labor Model

In the latest sign of the growing scrutiny of Amazon’s labor practices, the California State Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would place limits on production quotas for warehouse workers.

The bill, which passed the Senate 26-to-11, was written partly in response to high rates of injuries at Amazon warehouses. The legislation prohibits companies from imposing production quotas that prevent workers from taking state-mandated breaks or using the bathroom when needed, or that keep employers from complying with health and safety laws.

The Assembly, which passed an initial version in May, is expected to approve the Senate measure by the end of the state’s legislative session on Friday.

“In the Amazon warehouse space, what we’re trying to take on is this increased use of quotas and discipline based on not meeting the quotas, without a human factor in dealing with a reason why a worker might not make a quota,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author, said in an interview last week.

Gov. Gavin Newsom had not indicated before the vote whether he would sign the bill, but his staff was involved in softening certain provisions that helped pave the way for its passage.

Experts said the bill was novel in its attempts to regulate warehouse quotas that are tracked by algorithms, as at Amazon, and make them transparent.

“I believe one of Amazon’s biggest competitive advantages over rivals is this ability to monitor their work force, prod workers to work faster and discipline workers when they fail to meet quotas,” said Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois Chicago.

“It’s unprecedented for a bill to intervene like this in the ways that technology is used in the workplace,” added Dr. Gutelius, who focuses on warehousing and logistics.

Business groups have strongly opposed the bill, complaining that it will lead to costly litigation and hamstring the entire industry even though it is primarily intended to address labor practices at a single company.

Amazon has not commented on the bill but has said that it tailors performance targets to individual employees over time based on their experience level and that the targets take into account employee health and safety. The company has emphasized that fewer than 1 percent of terminations are related to underperformance.

The bill would require Amazon and other warehouse employers to disclose productivity quotas to workers and regulators, and would allow workers to sue to eliminate quotas that prevent them from taking breaks and following safety protocols.

While it is unclear how big an impact the bill would have on Amazon’s operations, limiting the company’s hourly productivity quotas would probably affect its costs more than its ability to continue next-day and same-day delivery.

“I think it’s all about money, not about what the system is set up to handle,” said Marc Wulfraat, president of the supply-chain and logistics consulting firm MWPVL International. “If you said to me, ‘Bring the rate down from 350 to 300 per hour,’ I’d say, ‘OK, we need to add more people to the operation — maybe we need 120 people instead of 100.’”

A report by the Strategic Organizing Center, a group backed by four labor unions, shows that Amazon’s serious-injury rate nationally was nearly double that of the rest of the warehousing industry last year.

“They would say, ‘Always pivot, never twist,’ all this stuff you’re supposed to do,” said Nathan Morin, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in California for more than three years packing and picking items before leaving in December. “But it’s oftentimes impossible to follow the proper body movements while also making rate.”

The company has vowed to improve worker safety and said it had spent more than $300 million this year on new safety measures.

Amazon is under growing pressure from unions and other groups over its labor practices. A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board has indicated that it is likely to overturn a failed union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama on the grounds that the company improperly interfered with the voting.

The objections to the election were brought by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which spearheaded the organizing campaign.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which backed the California bill and whose local officials have helped to derail a tax abatement for Amazon in Indiana and approval for an Amazon facility in Colorado, has committed to providing “all resources necessary” to unionize Amazon workers.

“This is a historic victory for workers at Amazon and other major warehouse companies,” Ron Herrera, a Teamsters official who is president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said in a statement. “These workers have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, while suffering debilitating injuries from unsafe quotas.”

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