Another week, another lawsuit. At least that’s the way it seems for Amazon, which now is the subject of claims from a former warehouse employee in California alleging that workers did not receive adequate lunch breaks at a fulfillment center despite being docked for the time in their paychecks.
The suit is coming to light as Amazon already is tussling with New York’s attorney general, fighting another lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and sexual assault, and in the middle of the biggest union battle in its history. A unionization vote for approximately 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., who have been casting ballots by mail on whether or not to unionize, concluded Monday.
The union vote is the first since 2014 for Amazon, the country’s second-largest private employer in the U.S. Big names on all sides of the political aisle including President Biden, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have thrown their support behind the unionization effort.
On Tuesday, federal labor authorities will begin tallying the votes—a process that could take a few days. Regardless of the outcome, whichever side isn’t the victor is expected to pursue legal challenges.
But the California lawsuit could take much longer. The case was transferred to U.S. District Court California, Northern District, on Friday after its first filing in San Francisco County Superior Court in February.
Former logistics specialist Lovenia Scott alleges in the suit that Amazon denied staff at the company’s Vacaville, Calif., warehouse the required 30-minute meal breaks for each five-hour work period under state legislation.
Through her attorneys, Scott is asking the court to certify her case as a class action and to grant a trial by jury.
Amazon, meanwhile, has denied any liability in the case in regard to Scott’s claims as an individual and her claims on behalf of a larger class of affected employees.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the suit, Scott contends that Amazon does not schedule meal breaks as a part of each shift; does not have a formal written meal or rest period policy that encourages employees to take their breaks; and requires employees to carry around, listen to and respond to requests on their walkie talkies during their meal breaks to ensure their work duties are being managed smoothly.
Scott said that since there were serious staffing issues and so much work was being imposed on workers, it was unlikely they would be able to take their breaks if they wanted to finish their work on time.
Additionally, since meal breaks were organized in such a way that many people took breaks at the same time, lines to clock in and out for the break could last between 10 to 15 minutes, thus taking time away from the actual break and risking tardiness on the workers’ part.
The plaintiff claims that Amazon automatically deducted 30 minutes for a meal period from her paycheck and those of other employees on the days they worked, even though they had not taken the full break.
Of course, since this deduction results in lower pay for Scott and other workers, the suit claims that making employees work during their meal and rest breaks entitles them to additional pay at agreed-upon rates or overtime rates, as well as one hour of premium wages for every day they didn’t get to take their meal break.
The allegations put forward in the report wouldn’t come as to a shock to many who have been critical of the e-commerce giant for its treatment of warehouse workers. A recent allegation against the company even went so far as to point out that Amazon workers have urinated in water bottles instead of taking a bathroom break because of the pressure to meet productivity goals.
While this practice has been denied by Amazon, a report by the Intercept said that management is aware that employees relieve themselves in bags and bottles.
Even as the Scott lawsuit and the additional allegations gain traction in the public, they’re likely not going to impact Amazon in the future the way the unionization tally will. If the employees in Bessemer vote to unionize, it could encourage other employees to do the same. A loss could force labor organizers to rethink their overall strategy and give Amazon confidence that its approach is working.
The union drive has captured national attention partly because of the spotlight on essential workers during the pandemic and on racial inequalities highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. Amazon is now starting to vaccinate vulnerable first-line workers after a Canadian warehouse was ordered to close amid surging coronavirus infections, which then prompted the local health board to launch an investigation into potential labor violations.
RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said that the union has already received more than 1,000 inbound requests from U.S. Amazon workers who are eager to organize their own workplace. The union represents 100,000 members throughout the U.S. and is conducting the unionization drive for the workers at the Bessemer fulfillment center.
“It’s not just workers in Alabama, it’s workers everywhere who are saying to Jeff Bezos that enough is enough,” Appelbaum said in a statement. “No matter what language they speak, Amazon workers around the globe will not stand for the working conditions they’ve been forced to endure for too long. Last week it was Italian workers, this week German workers, as the union vote count gets underway tomorrow for Alabama workers. What unites them all are the unacceptable working conditions at Amazon facilities everywhere. The Bessemer, Alabama Amazon workers stand in solidarity with Amazon workers in Germany and throughout the world who are standing up and fighting for the dignity and respect they deserve.”