Technology

California Senate Passes Landmark Bill Taking Aim at Amazon's Labor Practices

Peter Endig | AFP | Getty Images
  • California lawmakers late Wednesday passed a landmark bill aimed at curbing Amazon's use of productivity quotas in warehouses.
  • The bill would require employers to disclose productivity quotas to employees and government agencies, among other provisions.
  • Amazon warehouse workers and advocacy groups have argued the company's productivity quotas lead to workplace injuries and unfair disciplinary measures.

California lawmakers have passed a landmark bill aimed at regulating Amazon's use of productivity quotas in warehouses, a labor practice that has become a notorious complaint among its workers.

The State Senate voted late Wednesday 26-11 on the bill called the Warehouse Workers Protection Act, or AB-701. The bill now heads to the State Assembly for a final vote and will then be sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk for signing or veto. Newsom hasn't indicated yet whether he supports the bill.

The legislation requires employers to disclose productivity quotas to employees and government agencies. It also prohibits employers from requiring warehouse employees to meet unsafe quotas that prevent them from taking state-mandated meal and rest breaks, or from using the bathroom.

Amazon uses sophisticated algorithms to track productivity rates among its warehouse workers, logging the number of packages they pick, pack and stow each hour. If workers take a break from scanning packages for too long, Amazon's internal system will log it as a "time off task" and generate a warning, which can later lead to firings.

Amazon's productivity quotas have been the target of critics who say they lead to on-the-job injuries at warehouses. A study in June by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, found that Amazon warehouse workers are injured at higher rates than those at rival companies. The SOC attributed high injury rates among warehouse and delivery workers to Amazon's "obsession with speed."

The California legislation would not only increase transparency around productivity quotas, it would also give current and former employees more legal pathways to appeal them.

Labor groups heralded the legislation as a "historic victory" for warehouse workers at Amazon and other companies.

"With this law California is leading the way in regulating the brave new world of work where companies like Amazon are allowed to impose their intrusive and all-encompassing production systems that has pernicious effects on the health of millions of workers," said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the UNI Global Union, a global federation of unions that represents about 20 million service sector workers.

Representatives from Amazon didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the California legislation.

In June, the company adjusted its system that measures worker productivity, known as "time off task," to use averages over a longer time period. Amazon warehouse workers have said the metric limits their ability to take bathroom breaks and leads to unfair disciplinary actions.

Business groups have staunchly opposed the bill, arguing it would place undue legal burdens and labor restrictions on companies across the entire logistics industry. A "No On AB-701" coalition has amassed 50 organizations, including retailers, manufacturers and agriculture and food producers.

"AB 701 impacts distribution centers across industries and will increase the cost of living for all Californians, kill good-paying jobs and damage our fragile supply chain," said Rachel Michelin, head of the California Retailers Association, which includes Amazon on its board.

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