One of the biggest economic winners from the pandemic is Amazon, which almost doubled its annual profit last year to $ 21 billion and will far exceed that figure this year.
Profits came from the millions of Americans who appreciate the convenience of quick home delivery, but critics complain that the deal comes at a high cost for workers who they believe push the company to physical extremes.
This work model could change under a California bill that would require warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose productivity rates for workers whose progress they often use algorithms to track.
“The monitoring function is carried out by computers,” said MP Lorena Gonzalez, the author of the bill. “But they don’t take the human factor into account.”
The bill, which the congregation passed in May, and which the state Senate is expected to vote on this week, would ban any quota that prevents workers from taking state-mandated breaks or using the toilet when necessary, or employers from doing so prevents health and safety laws.
The legislation met with fierce opposition from corporate groups arguing that it would lead to an explosion of costly litigation and punish an entire industry for the perceived excesses of a single employer.
“They’re pursuing one company, but at the same time they’re pulling everyone else in the supply chain under that roof,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, on which Amazon sits.
California plays a pre-eminent role in the e-commerce and distribution industries, both because of its huge economy and status as a technology 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 goals are set based on actual employee performance over a period of time” and that they reflect the employee’s experience and health and security considerations.
“Resignations due to performance problems are rare – less than 1 percent,” added Ms. Nantel.
The company is facing increasing reviews of its treatment of workers, including the awaited decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that it illegally meddled in a union vote at an Alabama warehouse. The result could lead to new elections there, although Amazon has announced that it will keep the original vote in which it prevailed.
In June, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters passed a resolution obliging the union to provide “all the resources” necessary to organize Amazon workers, in part by putting pressure on the company through political channels. Teamters officials have participated in successful efforts to deny Amazon an Indiana tax break and permit for a Colorado facility, and are supporters of California law.
Both sides seem to view the battle for Amazon’s quotas as much. “We know the future of work falls into this algorithm, kind of an AI aspect,” said Ms. Gonzalez, the author of the bill. “If we don’t intervene now, other companies will be on the next level.”
Ms. Michelin, President of the Retail Federation, stressed that the data is “proprietary information” and said proponents of the bill “want this data because it helps union centers”.
Daily business briefing
9/2/2021, 4:54 p.m. ET
A report by the Strategic Organizing Center, a group supported by four unions, shows that Amazon’s rate of serious injuries nationwide in 2020 was nearly double that of the rest of the warehouse industry and more than double that of warehouses at Walmart, a top -Competitors.
When asked about the results, Ms. Nantel, the Amazon spokesperson, did not address them directly, but said the company recently partnered with a nonprofit safety group to develop ways to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. She also said that Amazon invested over $ 300 million in security measures like redesigning workstations this year.
Amazon employees have often complained about supervisors pushing them to work speeds that physically tire them.
“There were a lot of grandmothers,” said one worker in a study done by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, another supporter of California law. Supervisors “would come up to these older women and say, ‘Hey, you need to go faster,’ and then you could see on her face that she was about to cry. She says, ‘This is the fastest that my body can literally achieve.’ “
Yesenia Barrera, a former Amazon employee in California, said managers told her to pull, unpack, and scan 200 items an hour off a conveyor belt. She said that usually the only way to achieve this goal was to minimize her bathroom use.
“That would be if I ignored the use of toilet-like things to get it done,” Ms. Barrera said in an interview for this article. “When the bell rang for the break, I had the feeling that I had to do a few things before I took off.”
Edward Flores, faculty director of the Community and Labor Center at the University of California, Merced, says repetitive stress injuries are a particular problem in the warehouse industry as companies have automated their operations.
“They respond to the speed at which a machine is moving,” said Dr. Flores, who studied injuries in the industry. “The greater the dependency on robotics, the more repetitive movements and thus repetitive injuries occur.” Amazon is leading the introduction of warehouse robots.
Ms. Gonzalez said when she met with Amazon officials after they introduced a similar law last year, they denied the use of quotas, saying they would rely on targets instead and that workers would not be punished for that they did not adhere to them.
During a meeting a few days before the assembly passed this year’s bill, she said Amazon officials had acknowledged they could do more to promote the health and safety of their employees but made no specific suggestions about coaching the company Employees go out to be more productive.
At one point during the recent meeting, Ms. Gonzalez recalled, an Amazon official raised concerns that some employees were misusing more generous allotments of toilet time before another official stepped in to underscore the point.
“Somebody tried to go back to it,” she said. “It is often said softly. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it. “
The bill’s path has seemed increasingly rocky in the state Senate, where changes have weakened it. The bill no longer instructs the state labor protection agency to develop a rule that prevents bearing damage from overwork or other physical stress.
Instead, it gives the state labor commissioner’s office access to data on quotas and violations so it can step up enforcement. Workers could also sue employers to abolish excessively strict quotas.
Ms. Gonzalez said she was confident about the Senate vote due by the end of the legislature on Friday, but corporate groups are still working hard to derail it.
Ms. Michelin, the president of the retail group, said the changes made by the Senate committees made the bill more palatable and that its members could support a measure that gives regulators more resources to enforce health and safety regulations. However, she said they had serious concerns about the way the law empowers workers to sue their employers.
As long as this provision remains in the bill, she said, “we will never endorse it.”