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Economy & Business

California Bill Targets Fast-Paced Working Conditions At Warehouses

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Warehouses full of stuff have become a symbol of American consumerism, and workers have to be fast to meet the insatiable demands of customers. This workforce is ballooning because of Amazon and other companies. We should note here Amazon is an NPR sponsor; it has no bearing on our coverage. Now California lawmakers are weighing the first legislation of its kind which could give warehouse workers new power to fight speed quotas. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hurry, hurry, hurry - Yesenia Barrera says that's how it felt when she worked at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California.

YESENIA BARRERA: All you see is people bending down, scanning every individual items, scanning the tote, scanning individual items, scanning the tote, weighing it out, having to run to the other side, put it in the conveyor and then start over again.

SELYUKH: She rotated through several jobs. For 10 hours a day, she would bend, twist, reach, scan, unwrap, rewrap, hoping to hit 200 items an hour.

BARRERA: I rarely ever saw anyone leave to use the restroom unless, you know, they talked to someone - were like, do you mind scanning this item, like, every three minutes just so my time off task doesn't accumulate? Cover for me.

SELYUKH: Time off task is carefully watched by Amazon. The company says it's to make sure all technology is in working order, but also to identify underperforming workers. Too much time off task over time and the algorithm can flag you as a slacker and get you fired. Some workers, like Barrera, who is now an organizer with the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, have argued that the pace of work is unhealthy, unsustainable. That's what prompted new legislation by California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.

LORENA GONZALEZ: We're absolutely targeting the practices of Amazon that are being picked up, quite frankly, by other retailers.

SELYUKH: The legislation, AB-701, is a rare bill to specifically target large warehouses. It's complex but has two key themes. The main one says productivity quotas cannot come at the expense of health and safety. If they do, the bill would give workers more legal power to fight them. The second is transparency, giving workers their representatives and government officials more access to detailed records of quotas and workers' actual rates.

GONZALEZ: What we know is that Amazon workers get hurt two times as often as other warehouse workers.

SELYUKH: This came to light from news investigations of data from the federal workplace safety agency OSHA. For a while, Amazon said its higher injury rates were because it got more diligent about reporting than its rivals. This year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote to shareholders that the company has hired 6,200 safety professionals and pledged $300 million to work safety projects for 2021. He also said about 40% of Amazon's work-related injuries were musculoskeletal disorders. Here's Jordan Barab, former OSHA deputy assistant secretary.

JORDAN BARAB: What it is is repetitive motions, and I mean a lot of repetitive motions.

SELYUKH: These sprains, strains, back pain and other variations of the disorder account for over half of all nonfatal workplace injuries where workers wound up in an emergency room. Often, they are a product of exertion plus repetition in an awkward, unnatural position.

BARAB: And in this case, obviously, one of the major causes are the quotas, which cause an unhealthy pace of work.

SELYUKH: Amazon took no official stance on California's new bill, but the California Retailers Association and other business groups are fighting it. Opponents suggest its true nature is to boost labor organizing efforts and say it could unleash a torrent of lawsuits against many industries. California lawmakers might pass the bill in the next few days.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "ALL DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.