Amazon Is Getting Nervous About a California Warehouse Worker Safety Bill

A warehouse safety bill proposed in the California legislature could force Amazon to be transparent about its productivity quotas — and threaten the aura of invincibility and omnipotence the company uses to intimidate and silence workers.

A conveyor belt system under construction at an Amazon fulfillment center in Sacramento, California, in 2017. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The basic facts about the particularly poor working conditions at Amazon warehouses are widely known: injury rates that are double the industry average, bodies being worn down in a matter of weeks, and the mental distress that follows from constant surveillance and inhumane productivity rates. Despite growing awareness of the problem, the jobs still suck.

AB 701 in California is one attempt to help change that. The bill has passed the state assembly and is expected to reach the state senate floor next week. It targets algorithmically generated and enforced quotas in warehouses; it is a response, specifically, to Amazon. The company is the country’s second-largest private employer — it now employs nearly 1 million people in the United States, a number that doesn’t include the many delivery drivers who are employed by third-party contractors — and such domination is the rule in California, too. The state’s Inland Empire region is home to the country’s largest warehouse cluster, and Amazon employs some forty thousand people there.

AB 701 is the first bill in the United States that would require warehouses to disclose productivity quotas, the “rate” Amazon workers describe as governing their every move while on the job — Amazon is currently very reluctant to discuss specifics about its rates. Under AB 701, employers would need to provide these quotas in writing to workers, “including the quantified number of tasks to be performed, or materials to be produced or handled, within the defined time period, and any potential adverse employment action that could result from failure to meet the quota.”

It also prohibits employers from penalizing employees for “time off task” spent complying with health and safety standards or during meal and rest breaks. The reign of “time off task” in Amazon warehouses is constant and oppressive among the workforce, the source of employees’ inability to find time to use the restroom, or, during the pandemic, comply with best practices for keeping workplaces sanitary and socially distanced.

“Amazon has set the pace, creating a market for next-day delivery of consumer goods,” assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the bill’s author, told the Los Angeles Times (Gonzalez also authored the much-debated AB 5). “We see Walmart and other large warehouses following suit. We need to make sure our laws catch up with that.”

The bill is backed by some of the major players in California labor. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which recently committed to a major campaign to organize Amazon, supports it, as do the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.

Arrayed against these forces are employers and their political allies. The California Chamber of Commerce has led lobbying against the bill, apparently with some success. As the Los Angeles Times reports, several “clarifications” have been amended to the bill, including dropping its provision that Cal/OSHA (the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health) adopt a new warehouse-specific injury standard. Such changes have led the Chamber of Commerce to remove AB 701 from its “job killer” list, on which it had placed the bill earlier this year. Republican legislators, for their part, remain opposed, with state senator Brian Jones (R-Santee) calling the legislation “part of a campaign to tip the scales to coerce employees to unionize.”

AB 701 doesn’t fix a core problem with Amazon’s business model: its reliance on flexibility and speed to get items to customers’ doors. It doesn’t touch worker surveillance in Amazon facilities. Disclosing productivity rates without a new legally enforceable health and safety standard for quotas simply means admitting that Amazon — and other companies in the industry — have unsafe productivity expectations, a fact that many people, the company’s workers foremost among them, already know. Indeed, less than a year ago, Amazon settled a class-action lawsuit brought by twenty-seven plaintiffs who accused the company of failing to comply with state labor codes by denying workers adequate breaks, among other violations.

Despite those limitations, transparency is a critical organizing tool, a means to build evidence against Amazon for workers and their allies. There’s a reason that retailers are opposed to the legislation. Employers like Amazon desire absolute, dictatorial control over their workforce. They avoid democratic scrutiny or regulation, and they feel exempt from laws. AB 701 is an attempt to assert that they aren’t entirely free from such oversight, and that the growing movement among Amazon’s workers to wrest control from management has support at the legislative level. No wonder the state senate vote is expected to be a close one.