Protecting Amazon workers: The relevance of AB 701 for the Bay Area and beyond

‘A model for labor legislation as digital commerce plus automation becomes the retail norm’

By Ellen Reese

Special to The Examiner

California warehouse workers and labor activists are celebrating rare and historic legislation. Governor Newsom has signed AB 701, which gives warehouse workers new rights to protect themselves against exploitative and dangerous labor practices without fear of employer retaliation. The law is not just the first of its kind in the nation; it sets an important precedent for workers in other states, occupations and industries affected by high production quotas and electronic surveillance.

Amazon is Exhibit A here. While many businesses shut down or temporarily closed during the pandemic, Amazon’s home delivery business burgeoned. The second largest U.S. private employer behind Walmart, Amazon directly employs about 950,000 workers nationally, a figure that excludes its growing fleet of subcontracted delivery drivers and other workers. Amazon’s workforce also appears to be expanding; in Northern California alone, the company is recruiting to fill 14,000 jobs.

Amazon’s business model spans one-click consumerism, “free shipping” and electronic monitoring of workers’ productivity. It is a speed and efficiency model that attracts consumers, but that creates enormous costs for workers and communities. Inside Amazon’s enormous warehouses, fulfillment centers and smaller delivery stations, blue collar laborers, mostly underpaid workers of color, are pressured to work hard and fast, usually for 10 hours or more per shift if employed full-time.

Warehouse workers’ productivity is carefully tracked through continual electronic surveillance, to determine work rates, error rates and even “time off tasks.” If workers fail to meet Amazon’s high productivity standards, they can face warnings and even termination. Meanwhile, Amazon’s executives, mostly white men, reap most of the corporation’s rewards. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and executive chair, is the second wealthiest man on the planet, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

Many of the 82 current and former Amazon warehouse workers in Southern California interviewed by our research team at UC Riverside claim it can be difficult to meet Amazon’s high work rates and work safely. Under pressure to “make rate” or lose their jobs, workers report that they often get within six feet of one another, find it difficult to use the bathroom, experience high levels of stress and sometimes fail to implement basic safety procedures that might interfere with their work speed. National surveys, such as one conducted by the Strategic Organizing Center, similarly reveal that such experiences are all too common within Amazon’s warehouses.

Recent analyses of warehouse employers’ records show that rates of serious workplace injury are especially high at Amazon. An investigative report by Will Evans of Reveal news showed that warehouse workers employed by Amazon suffer high rates of serious workplace injury, nearly double the rate for the general U.S. warehousing industry. This is particularly disturbing, given that the rate of serious workplace injuries in warehousing was already high compared to other industries. Even worse, because not all workplace injuries are logged in company occupational health and safety records, these statistics may underestimate injury rates.

The implementation of AB 701 will protect warehouse workers from meeting productivity rates that “prevent compliance with meal or rest periods, use of bathroom facilities, including reasonable travel time to and from bathroom facilities, or occupational health and safety laws.” The law also gives warehouse workers new protections to make formal complaints, if work rates lead to violations in state or federal workplace health and safety laws or other labor laws. Finally, the law ensures that the California Labor Commissioner collaborates with other stakeholders to educate workers and employers about AB 701, and is notified if a particular warehouse employer has an injury rate 1.5 times the average rate for the warehouse industry as a whole.

At this moment when Amazon and other warehouse employers are hiring thousands in the Bay Area, AB 701 gives workers necessary new rights and protections. The law’s adoption and implementation is likely to strengthen ongoing efforts to organize and mobilize Amazon warehouse workers and to serve as a model for labor legislation as digital commerce plus automation becomes the retail norm.

Ellen Reese, professor of sociology and chair of labor studies at UC Riverside, is co-editor of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy.

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