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Amazon Warehouse Strategy Targeted in California Bill

Amazon is in the cross-hairs of a landmark legislation California lawmakers passed this week that will empower the state’s warehouse workers to fight “speed quotas.”

The e-commerce giant has long prioritized high worker productivity rates, drawing criticism from legislators who counter these standards foster unhealthy and sometimes unsafe workplaces—especially amid skyrocketing pandemic-fueled order volumes. In order to efficiently process orders, workers are forgoing their entitled rest and bathroom breaks—and even skipping mandatory pandemic safety measures like hand-washing and sanitizing, lawmakers allege.

On Wednesday, the California Senate voted 26-11 to pass Assembly Bill 701, which aims to regulate productivity quotas and ensure that warehouse workers are given their state-mandated meal time, bathroom breaks, and time to perform safety measures in line with safety protocols.

California Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, who introduced AB-701 alongside Assembly Members Ash Kalra, Miguel Santiago and Wendy Carrillo and Senators Maria Elena Durazo and Henry Stern in February, wrote that it would require employers to provide clear and written quota expectations upon hiring new employees or within 30 days of their implementation, and that employers would be prohibited from taking adverse action against employees for failing to meet quotas that do not comply with occupational health and safety laws. The bill passed a “concurrence” vote in the Assembly on Thursday afternoon, and will soon land on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for a final signature.

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“The rapid growth of just-in-time logistics and same- and next-day consumer package delivery, and advances in technology used for tracking employee productivity, have led to a rise in the number of warehouse and distribution center workers who are subject to quantified work quotas,” the bill read, noting that warehouse and distribution centers workers are expected to perform tasks within time periods often measured down to the minute or second.

They can face suspension or termination if they fail to do so, it said, promoting an atmosphere that does “not allow for workers to comply with safety guidelines or to recover from strenuous activity during productive work time, leaving warehouse and distribution center employees who work under them at high risk of injury and illness.”

While AB-701 was written to apply to all warehouses in the state of California, Gonzalez and her fellow legislators have said that Amazon’s practices during the pandemic underscored the bill’s relevance. “We’re absolutely targeting the practices of Amazon that are being picked up, quite frankly, by other retailers,” she told NPR.

“Today’s vote is a step forward in our efforts to empower warehouse workers to have a voice in their workplace, even when their supervisor is an algorithm,” she added in a statement Wednesday.

Amazon has faced rampant allegations from workers and public officials about its warehouse and distribution center conditions since March last year, and has been subject to numerous safety probes.

As recently as May, California fined Amazon $41,000 for Covid-safety violations at its Rialto warehouse, after a Canada facility shut for two weeks in March over rising infection rates. The Golden State’s Department of Industrial Relations’ (DIR) division of Occupational Safety and Health found that Amazon violated the labor code by failing to disclose any of the 217 Covid cases facility employees reported from April through Oct. 12 last year on its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) disclosure form. Prior to the Cal/OSHA inspection, the Rialto location was cited for neglecting to establish, implement and maintain an effective program to prevent workers from becoming sick, including measures like sanitation and hand-washing, which would pull workers away from their posts. These oversights that were deemed “serious” violations of state Covid protocol.

“Today, the California State Senate stood with Amazon workers and all warehouse workers to say their health and safety must be protected and their voices must be heard,” Ron Herrera, a Teamsters official and president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “California has once again proven that we are leaders, not followers, in the fight for worker’s rights.”

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.