Among the biggest economic winners of the pandemic is Amazon, which nearly doubled its annual profit last year to $21 billion and is on track to outstrip that total this year.
Profits come from millions of Americans, who value the convenience of fast home delivery, but critics complain that the arrangement comes at a huge cost to workers, whom they think the company is pushing to material extremes.
That labor pattern could begin to change under a California bill that requires warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose productivity quotas to workers, who they typically track progress using. use algorithms. .
“The surveillance function is being taken care of by computers,” said Representative Lorena Gonzalez, the author of the bill. “But they don’t take the human factor into account.”
The bill, passed by Congress in May and expected to be voted on by the state Senate this week, would ban any quota that prevents workers from taking state-regulated breaks or using bathroom when necessary, or it causes the employer to fail to comply with health and safety laws.
The act has drawn fierce opposition from business groups, who say it will lead to an explosion of costly lawsuits and punish the entire industry for the outrageous acts of one user. labor use.
“They’re chasing one company, but at the same time they’re pulling everyone else in the supply chain with it,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, who has Amazon’s board. Oh, hey you.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the bill but said in a statement that “performance goals are determined based on an employee’s actual performance over a period of time” and that they are take into account the experience as well as the health and safety of employees. considerations.
“Ms Nantel added that terminations because of performance issues are rare – less than 1%.
The company faces increasing scrutiny over its treatment of workers, including a tentative ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that it interfered illegally. legally on a union vote at a warehouse in Alabama. The finding could prompt a new election there, though Amazon has said it will appeal to preserve the original vote, in which it prevailed.
In June, the International Brotherhood of Teammates passed a resolution pledging the union to provide “all necessary resources” to organize Amazon workers, in part by pressuring the company through through political channels. Teamsters officials have been involved in successful attempts to deny Amazon tax breaks in Indiana and approve a facility in Colorado and are advocates of the California law.
Both sides seem to view Amazon’s quota war as high stakes. “We know that the future of work is falling on this algorithm, this kind of aspect of AI,” said Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “If we don’t intervene now, other companies will be the next stage.”
Ms. Michelin, president of the retail association, stressed that the data is “proprietary information” and said the bill’s proponents “want that data because it helps to unify distribution centers.”
A report by the Center for Strategic Organization, a group supported by four labor unions, found that Amazon’s national fatal injury rate was almost twice that of the rest of the warehousing industry as of last year. 2020 and more than double that of warehouses at Walmart, a top competitor. .
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When asked about the findings, Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, did not directly address it but said the company had recently partnered with a nonprofit safety advocacy group to develop ways to prevent it. musculoskeletal injury. She also said that Amazon has invested more than $300 million this year in safety measures, like redesigning workstations.
Amazon employees frequently complain that supervisors push them to work at a pace that causes them to physically break down.
“There are a lot of grandmothers,” one worker said in a study conducted by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, another body that supports the California bill. Managers would “come up to these older women and say, ‘Hey, I need you to speed things up,’ and then you can see on her face, she almost wants to cry. She said, ‘This is literally the fastest my body can go.’ ‘
Yesenia Barrera, a former Amazon worker in California, says managers told her she needed to pull 200 items an hour from the conveyor belt, unbox and scan them. She says she can often only achieve this goal by minimizing her use of the bathroom.
“That I would skip using toilet-style things to be able to do that,” Ms. Barrera said in an interview for this article. “When the bells went off, I felt like I had to do a few more things before take off.”
Edward Flores, department director of the Center for Work and Community at the University of California, Merced, says repetitive stress injuries are a particular problem in the warehousing industry as companies have automated their activities.
“You’re reacting to the speed at which a machine is moving,” said Dr Flores, who has studied trauma in the industry. “More reliance on robotics, higher rates of repetitive motion and therefore repetitive trauma.” Amazon was once a leader in the application of warehouse robots.
California plays a big role in the e-commerce and distribution industry, both because of its huge economy and status as a technology hub and because it is home to the ports where most of Amazon’s imported inventory comes from. come. The Inland Empire area, east of Los Angeles, has one of the most highly concentrated Amazon fulfillment centers in the country.
Gonzalez said that when she met with Amazon officials after introducing a similar bill last year, they denied using quotas, saying they relied on alternative targets and that workers not be punished for not responding.
During a meeting a few days before Congress passed this year’s bill, Amazon officials acknowledged that they could do much more to promote worker health and safety, she said, but did not give any details. make specific recommendations in addition to training employees on how to be more productive.
At one point during a recent meeting, Gonzalez recalls, an Amazon official raised concerns that some employees would abuse the more generous time allocation to use the bathroom before an official another reconsider the issue.
She said: “Someone tried to get it back. “It is often said softly. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that.”
The bill’s course has always been fraught with difficulties in the state Senate, where amendments have weakened it. The measure no longer directs the state’s occupational safety and health agency to develop rules to prevent injuries in the warehouse from overwork or other physical stress.
Instead, it gives the state labor commissioner’s office access to quota and injury data so that enforcement can be stepped up. Workers can also sue their employers to remove excessive quotas.
Gonzalez said she feels confident about the vote in the Senate, which will take place at the end of the legislative session on Friday, but business groups are still working to derail it.
Ms. Michelin, the retail group’s chairwoman, said that the Senate committee changes made the bill more palatable and her members could support a measure that provides more resources. for managers to enforce health and safety rules. But she said they have serious concerns about how the bill empowers workers to sue their employers.
As long as that provision remains on the bill, “we will never support,” she said.