Is Amazon’s need for speed hurting warehouse workers? California bill could help

Brittle objects were the worst: dishes, glasses, picture frames. Her heart sank when she heard them vibrate as the two treadmills, one at ankle height and the other at waist height, kept sliding.

Yesenia Barrera’s job at the Amazon warehouse was to remove the individual items from the boxes, scan them, prepare them for delivery, place them in a tote, and then transport them 10 feet to another conveyor belt.

Fragile goods had to be wrapped in bubble wrap; liquids had to be wrapped in plastic to avoid spills. These extra steps slowed her down, making it difficult for her to meet her processing quota of 100 items per hour.

“My body had to rush to get everything right,” said Barrera, 23, who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center in Rialto (San Bernardino County) from mid-2018 until she be suddenly dismissed in January 2019 for too long “time”. off task, ”although she said she never received a warning. “I was lifting things off the conveyor belt, bending and twisting a lot. It was expensive. “

Now a California bill, Assembly Bill 701, would crack down on speed quotas in warehouses, claiming they cannot compromise health and safety, for example by requiring workers to take risky shortcuts or skipping mandatory breaks. It would ban sanctions and reprisals linked to productivity rates. It would also require warehousing companies to detail their quotas to employees and regulators, and create legal avenues for employees to challenge working conditions.

The one-of-a-kind bill is aimed at all warehouse fulfillment centers, but Amazon is clearly the primary target. Both California legislatures have passed AB701, but Gov. Gavin Newsom has not said whether he will sign it before the October 10 deadline. “The bill will be assessed on its merits,” his office said in an email.

The pandemic has been a boon for e-commerce giant Amazon, now the country’s second-largest employer after Walmart with 950,000 American workers and a plan to hire 125,000 more for warehouse and transportation jobs, which have recently been increased to start at $ 18 an hour.

Behind the scenes, the fast delivery of Amazon orders involves warehouse workers who need to process goods quickly or risk disciplining or firing. Some say they have to skip bathroom breaks and suffer injuries on the job at a breakneck pace to “catch up.”

Barrera, who made $ 15 an hour as a “seasonal worker,” meaning she had no benefits like insurance or sick leave, said she often skipped personal needs such as using the restroom – a five minute walk away – or having a drink of water.

She was also afraid of heavy objects – boxes of soda, detergent multipacks, bags of dog food, weights for training.

“I was usually at the back of the line, so I ended up with the boxes that everyone was avoiding – heavier items and ones that took longer to prepare,” said Barrera, now organizer of the Warehouse Worker Resource. Center, which tries to improve working conditions in industry and supports AB701.

While supporters of the bill say it will protect workers in a fast-growing industry where speed has become paramount and conditions can be tough, many business groups oppose the measure, saying it is micromanagement that will hurt businesses and consumers.

Amazon declined to comment on the bill, but said employee health and safety is its top priority and that it is investing heavily in safety measures. Less than 1% of employees are made redundant for performance issues, the company said.

“AB701 goes too far and could have many unintended consequences,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association. “We already have cracks in the supply chain because of COVID; it could continue to put a strain on it, affecting end users, consumers in California. “

The bill would affect distribution centers in several industries, pushing up the prices of all kinds of products, including fresh food, Michelin said. She also fears it could spark a new wave of lawsuits, making California inhospitable to warehouse operators.

But those who support the bill say it’s crucial to prevent workplace injuries. A variety of reports from organizations and news groups such as the Worker-Backed Strategic Organization Center and based on data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that Amazon workers are injure at a higher rate than those of other warehouses.

“The workers are injured,” said Christian Castro, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, which supports the bill – and hopes to organize Amazon warehouse workers. “Our dependence on e-commerce has grown exponentially. As companies like Amazon shorten delivery times, it puts more pressure on workers. There is constant stress to follow and not to get fired.

Amazon said multiple reports of the higher injury rates were wrong.

“These types of injuries are unfortunately common in the industry,” spokeswoman Rachael Lightly said in an email. She said research has shown that workers between the ages of 18 and 24 – Amazon’s lineup of many new hires – “were the most likely, compared to any other generation, to report a work-related MSD” or a musculoskeletal disorder. Therefore, “the data is skewed,” she said.

Still, the company wants to improve and has hired 6,200 security professionals and invested millions in security measures and improvements, Lightly said.

Amazon documents show that it had 153,000 workers in California at the end of 2020, many of whom work at its 60 distribution and sorting centers and 50 delivery stations (the last point before packages are loaded). Its main warehouses are heavily concentrated in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. It has warehouses throughout the Bay Area, but some of the larger ones serving that area are located just outside, in the town of Tracy in the San Joaquin Valley.

Ellen Reese, chair of the Work Studies Program at UC Riverside, is co-author of a book on Amazon’s impact on communities, and she previously co-edited one called “The Cost. of free delivery: Amazon in the global economy ”.

After Reese and her associates interviewed 82 current and former Amazon warehouse workers in the Inland Empire, she found common themes.

“A lot of them were very concerned about work rates and felt that under this pressure they often cut corners on safety guidelines,” she said.

Interviewees discussed the high rate of injuries, including muscle strain, repetitive strain injuries and hearing damage from noisy environments, she said.

“Many workers felt that they did not have time to go to the toilet; it’s not good for the body, ”she said. “The warehouses are huge, so the bathrooms can be quite far away. In this situation, some pee in bottles and garbage cans.

A 24-year-old woman, a sorting associate at an Amazon warehouse in Los Angeles, said she injured her knee at work, which resulted in a six-month medical leave during which she had to fight the company to obtain workers’ compensation. She requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal for her work and was granted anonymity in accordance with Chronicle’s policies on anonymous sources.

His job is to grab packaged orders on a conveyor belt to scan and sort them just before they are placed on trucks for delivery. She is a “blue badge”, ie a full-time employee.

“We have to work at a certain pace, so we’re moving really fast – bending over, kneeling, trying to scan over 350 to 400 packages per hour,” she said. She was performing fewer tasks per item than Barrera and therefore had a much higher quota. “The (mandatory rate) changes every day depending on the size of the volume. There are managers who come and go to advertise the rate. If you aren’t scanning fast enough, they walk into your driveway and tell you you need to scan faster.

On the day she was injured, a manager came three times to tell her, “’You are not hitting your rate; I believe in you; I know you can scan faster, ”she said. “I felt so under pressure; I would just grab some packages, reach out, kneel and bend down. I grabbed a bundle, leaned over and reached out to put it away, and twisted and blew my knee.

She continued to work, but that night she could barely walk. She went to the emergency room, where a doctor gave her a knee immobilizer and crutches. Her supervisors said she had to report her injury in person, so the next day she came down from her second-floor apartment and went to work, where she was asked to see a company-approved doctor by video, which made him self-examine. touching his knee.

“I’m too young to have a knee injury, but it still bothers me,” she said. “It’s not just me; many colleagues have had their backs exploded while scanning or have to tape their shoulders every day so they do not come out.

She is counting on AB701 to improve conditions.

“I hope this takes into account the speed at which we can move as people and not as robots,” she said. “For me, working as fast as I was led to safety shortcuts, without even prioritizing my own health and safety. I hope my colleagues in California and I will not have to choose between their security and their tariff.

Carolyn Said is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid

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