A California bill aims to regulate quotas for warehouse workers who labor under relentless productivity requirements from Amazon, Walmart, and other major retailers.
On Tuesday, California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, one of California's most influential legislators who has written several high-profile bills targeting tech companies' labor practices, introduced the bill. Called AB 701, it would require companies that run warehouses to provide workers with a written description of "the quantified number of tasks to be performed, or materials to be produced or handled" within a given time period.
The logistics companies would also have to disclose any disciplinary action against workers that could result from failing to meet production quotas. Retaliating against workers outside of these disclosures would become illegal.
"This bill is aimed at Amazon's business model, which is to profit off workers who continue to be pressured to fulfill orders quicker," Gonzalez told Motherboard. “They need more protections at work. The injury rate at Amazon is twice the average the industry rate."
This legislation arrives as e-commerce giants like Amazon have made record profits during the pandemic and online retail has boomed. This growth (and the explosion of other companies' online businesses, such as Walmart) has been built on the backs of warehouse workers. Workers at both Amazon and Walmart complain about crushing workloads and time constraints that have been put in place to make the companies' respective two-day and next-day delivery times, according to organizers at the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.
Recent studies and investigations show that Amazon requires workers to scan hundreds of items an hour, penalizing and terminating workers for failing to keep up with quotas, which is marked as "time-off-task."
The result of Amazon's drive for productivity has been widespread and debilitating injuries. According to a report in Reveal, Amazon's records show that its warehouse workers are injured at twice the rate of others in the warehouse industry and three times the rate of other private employers. Between 2016 and 2019, injury rates in Amazon warehouses increased by 33 percent, particularly with the implementation of robots. The most common Amazon warehouse injuries are musculoskeletal, such as sprains, strains and tears, according to the National Employment Law Project and the Athena Coalition.
Gonzalez's bill—which has received backing from unions, labor advocacy groups, and workers centers—also aims to tackle warehouse worker injuries. The bill requires that the state's workplace health and safety agency, CAL/OSHA, introduce "a standard that minimizes the risk of illness and injury among employees working in warehouse distribution centers that employ production quotas."
During the pandemic, Amazon claimed to temporarily drop its productivity expectations, but warehouse workers across the country complained that pressures to produce quickly kept them from social distancing, washing their hands, and cleaning their workstations.
"One of the reasons we structured the bill this way is that Amazon would have to put in writing what their quotas are, which sometimes they deny having," Gonzalez said. "Those expectations fluctuate and change. Having Amazon putting them in writing would help OSHA to establish a safe work environment. Right now there’s so little to go on. We need data."
Gonzalez has written laws to expand the rights of Amazon warehouse workers, janitors, and farmworkers. In 2020, she received national recognition as the architect of a law, known as AB5, that required gig economy companies to reclassify their workers as employees. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash spent tens of millions on a 2020 California ballot initiative, known as Prop 22, to exempt themselves from the law.