California Bill Could Alter Amazon Labor Practices

Among the pandemic’s greatest financial winners is Amazon, which almost doubled its annual revenue final 12 months to $21 billion and is on tempo to far exceed that complete this 12 months.

The income flowed from the thousands and thousands of Americans who worth the comfort of fast house supply, however critics complain that the association comes at a big price to employees, whom they are saying the corporate pushes to bodily extremes.

That labor mannequin may start to alter below a California invoice that will require warehouse employers like Amazon to reveal productiveness quotas for employees, whose progress they usually monitor utilizing algorithms.

“The supervisory function is being taken over by computers,” mentioned Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the invoice’s creator. “But they’re not taking into account the human factor.”

The invoice, which the Assembly handed in May and the State Senate is anticipated to vote on this week, would prohibit any quota that stops employees from taking state-mandated breaks or utilizing the toilet when wanted, or that retains employers from complying with well being and security legal guidelines.

The laws has drawn intense opposition from enterprise teams, which argue that it will result in an explosion of pricey litigation and that it punishes a complete business for the perceived excesses of a single employer.

“They’re going after one company, but at the same time they’re pulling everyone else in the supply chain under this umbrella,” mentioned Rachel Michelin, the president of the California Retailers Association, on whose board Amazon sits.

California plays an outsize role in the e-commerce and distribution industry, both because of its huge economy and status as a tech hub and because it is home to the ports through which much of Amazon’s imported inventory arrives. The Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles, has one of the highest concentrations of Amazon fulfillment centers in the country.

Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the bill but said in a statement that “performance targets are determined based on actual employee performance over a period of time” and that they take into account the employee’s experience as well as health and safety considerations.

“Terminations for performance issues are rare — less than 1 percent,” Ms. Nantel added.

The company faces growing scrutiny of its treatment of workers, including an expected ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that it unlawfully interfered in a union vote at an Alabama warehouse. The finding could prompt a new election there, though Amazon has said it would appeal to preserve the original vote, in which it prevailed.

In June, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters passed a resolution committing the union to provide “all resources necessary” to organize Amazon workers, partly by pressuring the company through political channels. Teamsters officials have taken part in successful efforts to deny Amazon a tax abatement in Indiana and approval for a facility in Colorado and are backers of the California legislation.

Both sides appear to regard the fight over Amazon’s quotas as having high stakes. “We know that the future of work is falling into this algorithm, A.I. kind of aspect,” said Ms. Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “If we don’t intervene now, other companies will be the next stage.”

Ms. Michelin, the retail association president, emphasized that the data was “proprietary information” and said the bill’s proponents “want that data because it helps unionize distribution centers.”

A report by the Strategic Organizing Center, a group backed by four labor unions, shows that Amazon’s serious-injury rate nationally was almost double that of the rest of the warehousing industry in 2020 and more than twice that of warehouses at Walmart, a top competitor.

Asked about the findings, Ms. Nantel, the Amazon spokeswoman, did not directly address them but said that the company recently entered into a partnership with a nonprofit safety advocacy group to develop ways of preventing musculoskeletal injuries. She also said that Amazon had invested over $300 million this year in safety measures, like redesigning workstations.

Amazon employees have frequently complained that supervisors push them to work at speeds that wear them down physically.

During a meeting a few days before the Assembly passed this year’s bill, she said, Amazon officials acknowledged that they could do more to promote the health and safety of their workers but did not offer specific proposals beyond coaching employees on how to be more productive.

At one point during the more recent meeting, Ms. Gonzalez recalled, an Amazon official raised concerns that some employees would abuse more generous allotments of time for using the bathroom before another official weighed in to de-emphasize the point.

“Someone else tried to walk it back,” she said. “It’s often said quietly. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it.”

The bill’s path has always appeared rockier in the State Senate, where amendments have weakened it. The bill no longer directs the state’s occupational safety and health agency to develop a rule preventing warehouse injuries that result from overwork or other physical stress.

Instead, it gives the state labor commissioner’s office access to data about quotas and injuries so it can step up enforcement. Workers would also be able to sue employers to eliminate overly strict quotas.

Ms. Gonzalez said she felt confident about the Senate vote, which must come by the close of the legislative session on Friday, but business groups are still working hard to derail it.

Ms. Michelin, the retailer group president, said that the Senate committees’ changes had made the bill more palatable and that her members might support a measure that gave more resources to regulators to enforce health and safety rules. But she said they had serious concerns about the way the bill empowers workers to sue their employers.

As long as that provision remains in the bill, she said, “we will never support it.”

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