In summary

Assembly Bill 701 requires employers like Amazon to disclose workplace quotas and curbs the ability to penalize workers for “time off-task.”

By Yesenia Barrera, Special to CalMatters

Yesenia Barrera is an organizer at the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, yesenia@warehouseworkers.org.

Earlier this year, Jeff Bezos wrote one last letter to Amazon shareholders. In addition to being  “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” he promised Amazon would be “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work.” As a former Amazon warehouse worker in Southern California, I know that the company has a long way to go to meet this goal. 

Earlier this month, CEO Andy Jassy took the reins of Amazon as Bezos stepped down from the role. Jassy has the chance to make good on Bezos’ promise and put the safety of the company’s 1.3 million workers at the heart of Amazon’s mission. He must start by being transparent about the punishing work quotas at Amazon warehouses, a move that could become law in California with the passage of Assembly Bill 701.

My job at Amazon was one of the most physically and mentally exhausting I have ever had. Although I walked in on my first day excited to be working there, the joy quickly faded, replaced by anxiety and, eventually, injury. 

Amazon warehouse workers labor eight to 10 hours a day, up to five days a week, not including mandatory overtime known as “peak.” The work is fast and extremely brutal on the body. Amazon’s warehouse workers carry, bend, reach, twist and pack items that weigh between 30 to 60 pounds, day in and day out, walking 10 to 15 miles daily with no chance to properly rest our bodies.  

Amazon’s surveillance system constantly monitors worker production: how many items we pack per second and per hour. If a worker has not scanned or moved a box for a couple of minutes, the system alerts a manager. The algorithms force warehouse workers to work faster and faster — at the cost of their bodies. Debilitating sprains, tears and bruising to the back, shoulders and knees are common. Failing to keep the pace can result in a write-up or worse. 

I was a seasonal employee till 2019 and worked hard to become a permanent, full- time employee at the Rialto fulfillment center. One day, I was approached by my manager because the monitoring system said I wasn’t productive enough that day. I received a write-up, and when I returned to work my next scheduled shift, my badge didn’t work. The algorithm resulted in my firing, as it did for other workers like me, even though we were working as hard as we could. 

Far from Bezos’ public promises to make Amazon work-safe, working in one of the company’s warehouses not only remains more dangerous than the average workplace, the company stands out for its dubious safety record even within the warehouse industry. Amazon’s records show that people were injured on the job at double the average rate of the general warehousing industry and triple the average rate across all private employers in 2018. These workers were injured on the job more frequently than police officers, sanitation workers and even lumberjacks. 

The company’s explicit goal to keep employee turnover high means burnout isn’t a corporate concern, despite Bezos’ “best employer” promise.  

I constantly felt the stress of having to work fast and even ignore my personal needs for restroom breaks or water because I didn’t want to be written up and terminated for it. Amazon treated its workers like robots. We are human.

That is why hundreds of workers like me have joined a coalition of labor, community and faith leaders who are advocating for the passage of Assembly Bill 701. AB 701 will bring this punishing, algorithm-driven work out of the shadows by requiring employers like Amazon to disclose workplace quotas. It also will stop Amazon and other companies from penalizing workers for “time off-task” when they comply with health and safety standards. 

CEO Jassy has a chance to fix Amazon’s safety record; AB 701 is a simple way to hold him and other CEOs accountable for creating safe places to work. Urge legislators to support it.

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