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California May Crack Down on Harsh Working Conditions in Amazon Warehouses

People across the world rely on Amazon for the fast delivery of products. Because of the company's promises to deliver products as early as the next day, workers in their distribution centers have faced quotas resulting in dangerous working conditions, missed meal and rest breaks, and potential termination when they cannot meet them. Recently, the California Assembly passed a bill that should soon be considered by the state Senate. If it is passed and enacted, this bill could have a major impact on how Amazon does business in the state.

Working Conditions at Amazon Warehouses and Distribution Centers

Amazon uses an algorithm to determine the quotas employees must meet in the company's warehouses and distribution centers. Because of this algorithmic quota system, workers have been forced to work under time pressures and have had problems with taking normal rest and lunch breaks. Some workers have revealed that they have had to keep bottles at their workstations to urinate in. Because of the quota system, workers who fail to meet the hourly quotas as determined by the algorithm have also lost their jobs.

The reported working conditions at Amazon distribution centers and warehouses have led the California Assembly to draft new legislation to specifically address the company's quota system, algorithm, and speed metrics. If passed, this law promises to change the working conditions for Amazon workers in California. If adopted in other states, it could change the way the company does business across the U.S.

AB-701

AB-701 was introduced by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez on Feb. 16, 2021, and was co-authored by three other assembly members and two senators. This bill would require distribution centers and warehouses to disclose their assigned quotas and how they measure worker speed to government agencies and employees. It would also prohibit penalties for taking time off from performing tasks when the penalties would negatively impact the safety and health of the employees, including their ability to take bathroom breaks. Finally, the law would prohibit workplace retaliation by employers against workers who complain about their workplace conditions, quotas, and not being able to take enough time off for bathroom breaks, rest breaks, or meal breaks.

Amazon's sales have greatly increased during the pandemic with more people turning to e-commerce to get the goods they need. It has advertised next-day delivery to its customers, placing pressure on the workers in its warehouses and distribution centers to quickly fulfill orders. Other large retailers, including Walmart, have since begun to follow suit and advertise fast deliveries, placing pressure on their workers as well.

The law would give workers access to information about how algorithms used in the workplace gather data about them and their work. It would also let employees see upfront the types of expectations they would have for meeting quotas and inform them of their rights to take bathroom and rest breaks free from a fear of retaliation.

Problem of Workplace Injuries at Amazon

According to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Amazon has a workplace injury rate that is almost double that of other companies in the warehouse space. For example, Amazon's injury rate in 2020 was 6.5 per 100 workers while Walmart's rate was three per 100. The Senate Judiciary Committee indicates that Amazon might be prioritizing profits over workplace safety, something the company denies.

Employees have suffered repetitive motion injuries, strains, sprains, forklift accidents, and others as workers struggle to meet their quotas and keep their jobs. Amazon has stated that it will spend $300 million on workplace safety improvements during the upcoming year.

The company has cameras throughout its facilities at each workstation to monitor employees and flag any who step off task. Workers have also reported that computers in the warehouse tell them their required daily quotas, which are often nearly impossible to meet. People work in 10-hour shifts repeatedly bending, carrying, and lifting products weighing between 60 and 70 pounds. If they take too much time off task, they are fired.

Push to Unionize

The proposed legislation comes as Amazon workers have been making efforts to unionize. In April 2021, Amazon stopped an effort among warehouse workers in Alabama to unionize its 6,000 employees. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is pushing to organize the company's warehouse workers nationwide.

In companies with unionized distribution and warehouse workers, unions negotiate safety concerns with management. If the new law passes, it would force Amazon to make major changes in the working conditions its employees are forced to endure.

Opposition to AB-701

Major retailers, distribution companies, and the California Chamber of Commerce are opposing AB-701. They argue that quotas have been in existence for decades and that having standards for productivity is not necessarily punitive. The proponents of the bill removed a requirement for the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to implement an injury rule for warehouses in a compromise. However, the proponents argue that the bill is still strong because enforcement will be increased by the California Department of Labor. The bill exempts warehouses on farms to prevent food from spoiling before it is shipped.

Republican legislators argue that the bill will result in increased prices and cause companies to face increased litigation. They have also argued that the bill is meant to encourage employees to unionize and that people should not trust Democrats to micromanage warehouses owned and operated by private companies.

What the Bill Would do

According to the bill's introduction, AB-701 would do a number of things. Employers would be required to provide all non-exempt warehouse or distribution center workers with written descriptions of the quotas that they will have to meet and a written number of tasks they will have to perform or materials they will have to produce within a specific time period. This list will have to be provided to each employee at the time that he or she is hired or within 30 days of his or her hiring date.

Employers will also have to give a written description of the adverse employment actions that could be taken if the employee fails to meet his or her assigned quota. Employees will not be required to meet any quotas that would interfere with their ability to use the bathroom or take the mandated meal or rest breaks under the state's labor laws. They also would not have to meet quotas that violate the state's occupational health and safety laws. Employers would be prohibited from retaliating against workers for reporting unsafe working conditions caused by their quotas.

If an employer fails to disclose the expected quotas to an employee, the employer would be prohibited from taking adverse action for failing to meet it or for failing to meet a quota that would not allow the employee to take meal, rest, or bathroom breaks. Former employees who believe that meeting their quotas caused them to not receive their required meal or rest breaks would be able to ask for written descriptions of their quotas and a copy of their most recent speed data for the last 90 days worked. Current employees could also request this information if they believe that meeting quotas caused them to miss their required rest or meal breaks. Employees could then seek injunctive relief to require their employers to comply with the requirements and recover costs and attorney fees.

Under the proposed bill, the Labor Commissioner would be required to coordinate with the Department of Industrial Relations to enforce the law. Injury and enforcement action data from the Department of Industrial Relations would have to be shared with the Labor Commissioner. Finally, the Labor Commissioner would have to file a report with the legislature of the number of claims filed, the injury rates, and information about the quotas in warehouses by Jan. 1, 2023.

Talk to an Experienced Labor Law Attorney

If AB-701 passes, Amazon workers will have increased rights to hold their employer accountable for unsafe work conditions, missed meal and rest periods, and workplace injuries. Workers already have the right under California's labor laws to file claims against their employers for violating the state's meal and rest break mandates and for workplace retaliation against them when they engage in protected activities. For more information, contact Steven M. Sweat, APC at 866.966.5240.

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