A groundbreaking new California law takes direct aim at a key feature of Amazon’s business model: the backbreaking production quotas that are seriously injuring warehouse workers.
Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week, the law prohibits warehouse companies from enforcing work quotas that prevent workers from going to the bathroom or doing their jobs safely, in line with health and safety laws. While state officials would be in charge of enforcement, the law also gives workers the right to sue to overturn unsafe quotas and any discipline they receive for not meeting them. And the bill says that if a worker is punished within 90 days of making a complaint about a quota, it will be considered unlawful retaliation.
“This is a first step. We’ve got to do more,” said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. “Hopefully, Amazon will look at this and start to internally change things to make things safer. But we sent a clear message – and hopefully other states will, too – that we’re watching. We’re going to protect workers.”
A series of investigations by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting showed how Amazon’s injury rates were far worse than the national average for the warehousing industry. Former Amazon safety managers blamed the company’s production demands, which are enforced under threat of discipline or termination. Workers, whose pace is constantly monitored down to the second, said they had to break safety rules to keep up. Some said they even developed urinary tract infections because they had to avoid going to the bathroom to hit quotas.
Gonzalez said our investigations helped prompt the law, along with the warehouse workers she spoke to directly.
“We were starting out with a problem and not quite sure how to fix it,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not sure our legislation will fix it. I think it is a step forward.”
Amazon has attempted to conceal the problem. Last year, we showed how Amazon had misled the public and lawmakers about its safety crisis. While the company claimed it was improving, internal records showed the company’s rate of serious injuries had gotten worse from 2016 to 2019. Injury rates were especially high during peak shopping times and in Amazon’s robotic warehouses, where the company’s hyper-efficient technology pushed workers even faster.
“Amazon has utilized these technologies of the future to squeeze as much as they can out of every worker – with nothing to balance it out,” Gonzalez said.
Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment on the new law. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in his shareholder letter this year, wrote, “We don’t set unreasonable performance goals.” He said the company would become “Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” The company then announced a $12 million donation and five-year partnership with the National Safety Council to “to invent new ways to prevent” musculoskeletal injuries.
Business groups, such as the California Retailers Association, opposed the bill, saying it would increase costs for consumers and slow down warehouses.
Gonzalez suggested hiring more people: “Next-day delivery isn’t the problem. You have to have a workforce large enough to achieve that without hurting the workers.”
Her bill initially required California’s workplace safety agency to create regulations that would reduce the risk of warehouse injuries. But California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, pushed back on that, Gonzalez said, and it was eventually stripped from the legislation.
Instead, the law focuses on transparency, requiring warehouse companies to provide employees with a written description of their work quotas. Employers also have to give workers who object to quotas a copy of the data tracking their productivity. Gonzalez hopes the information to come out of that will both help workers fight unsafe quotas and lead to a new state standard regulating quotas in the future.
California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower will be in charge of enforcing the law. The commissioner will also determine whether an investigation is warranted for workplaces with injury rates at least 1.5 times higher than the industry average.
Many Amazon warehouses have racked up rates of injury much higher than that.
At the Southern California warehouse where Candice Dixon worked, the rate of serious injuries was more than four times the industry average in 2018. She suffered one of the 422 injuries Amazon recorded there that year. Trying to keep up with a requirement to scan and lift an item every 11 seconds, even through a shift of heavy products, Dixon ruined her back, leaving her in debilitating chronic pain.
Hearing about the new law brought tears to her eyes, Dixon said.
“Like, happy tears of thank God something good came out of this,” she said.
“I understand a company needs to make sure their workers aren’t slacking off,” she said. “But companies take advantage as well.”
Dixon said she hopes the new law helps prevent other workers from getting injured, even as she remains in pain.
“It’s not going to really help me,” she said, “but it’s going to help other people, and that makes me happy.”
The year after Dixon’s injury, the warehouse where she worked had one of the highest injury rates of all of Amazon’s fulfillment centers. The only one with a worse record in 2019 was in DuPont, Washington, just an hour south of the company’s Seattle headquarters. It logged just over 22 serious injuries per 100 employees, six times the industry average that year.
Following our reporting, Washington safety officials investigated and found a “direct connection” between the injuries there and Amazon’s enforcement of “a very high pace of work.” It was the first time nationally that safety officials had found Amazon in violation of the law for its fast-paced work demands. Amazon is contesting the citation and the maximum $7,000 fine.
The records that show employers’ injury rates used to be kept secret by the federal government. However, after we sued, a federal judge ruled that the records must be made public. As a result of our suit and one by Public Citizen, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now posts online injury data for more than 200,000 workplaces, allowing companies to be held accountable for their safety records.
The Washington Post and a report by a coalition of unions used the newly accessible data to highlight Amazon’s latest rate of serious injuries, which declined in 2020 but was still much higher than non-Amazon warehouses.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Will Evans can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.