California Governor signs bill protecting warehouse workers from unsafe quotas

AB 701 takes aim at Amazon and other warehouse operators that prioritize productivity over health

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed Assembly Bill 701, establishing new protections for workers at warehouse distribution centers.

The new law requires employers operating large warehouses in the state to disclose worker production quotas. It also prohibits disciplinary action against workers for missing quotas as a result of health- or safety-related breaks.

AB 701, which takes effect on January 1, 2022, was drafted with an eye toward Amazon's warehouse management practices.

"Amazon’s business model relies on enforcing inhumane work speeds that are injuring and churning through workers at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who proposed the bill, in a statement.

"Workers aren’t machines. We’re not going to allow a corporation that puts profits over workers’ bodies to set labor standards back decades just for ‘same-day delivery.'"

Gonzalez characterized the bill as an effort to give workers basic dignity, to help them stay safe, and to regulate algorithmic job surveillance and target setting.

Amazon, the second largest employer in the US behind Walmart, has attracted attention from state and federal Democratic legislators as a result of ongoing news reports about its treatment of workers and its anti-union efforts.

In February, 2020, 15 Democratic US senators wrote an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos expressing concern about the safety of Amazon workers. The letter said the company's own injury reports suggested Amazon was prioritizing productivity over worker health and safety.

"Amazon’s dismal safety record indicates a greater concern for profits than for your own workers’ safety and health," the letter said, and it challenged the company to treat workers better by making their quotas more manageable and by not counting bathroom breaks as "Time off Task."

Several months after public denying that its workers pee in bottles to avoid having the Time off Task counted against them and then backtracking, Amazon in June made a concession with word that it is "averaging Time off Task over a longer period to ensure that there’s more signal and less noise."

That statistical shift that will make short breaks less significant in the company's productivity measurements.

Amazon's critics would like to see further reforms. And AB 701 should satisfy some of those demands by improving conditions for warehouse workers, and not just at Amazon facilities.

The warehouse distribution center law:

  • Bans employers from punishing workers based on performance quotas that ignore health and safety laws.
  • Requires that employers provide workers with written notice of any such quotas.
  • Establishes an employee's right to access personal work speed metrics.
  • Establishes a private right of action for workers who believe they were subject to retaliation based on quota performance, and allows for the recovery of reasonable costs and attorney fees from the employer.

The legislation has been hailed by labor groups.

"The passage of the Warehouse Workers Protection Act is a victory for the warehouse workers in [California] who have continued to keep our communities running throughout the pandemic," said Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, via Twitter. "It is a victory for every worker who spoke up, called their representative, or joined one of our actions."

Predictably, The California Retailers Association, a trade group that lobbied against the bill, was less enthusiastic.

"We are disappointed Governor Newsom signed AB 701, which will exacerbate our current supply chain issues, increase the cost of living for all Californians and eliminate good-paying jobs," said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, and chair of the No on AB 701 coalition, a group of 50 organizations that opposed the bill.

"With California’s ports facing record backlogs of ships waiting off the coast and inflation spiking to the fastest pace in 13 years, AB 701 will make matters worse for everyone – creating more backordered goods and higher prices for everything from clothes, diapers and food to auto parts, toys and pet supplies."

Over the summer, Retail Industry Leaders Association, a Washington, DC-based retail trade group, warned that AB 701 "would make it virtually impossible to terminate employees with any kind of awareness of these rules for poor performance."

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. ®

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