People over profits: California bill pushes Amazon, Walmart and other big e-retailers

Despite pressure from big-business advocates in the state, the one-of-a-kind worker protection bill AB 701 has passed in California. The bill is meant to ensure that for workers at warehouse retailers like Amazon, productivity demands cannot come at the expense of health and safety. Since Amazon came to be one of the largest producers in the country, other companies began adopting Amazon’s business model, all at the increasing expense of workers, including pushing workers to disregard safety techniques or miss breaks, which are legally required. – Art: Los Angeles County Federation of Labor

by Antonio‌ ‌Ray‌ ‌Harvey‌,‌ ‌California‌ ‌Black‌ ‌Media‌

Last week, warehouse workers, labor leaders, elected officials and community groups came together on the steps of the California State Capitol. Their goal was to generate public support for California’s pro-worker “Warehouse Workers Protection Act” – also called Assembly Bill 701 – and to encourage the state Senate to pass it. 

“Working in warehouses for corporations like Amazon has quickly become one of the most dangerous jobs in the private sector,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, asserted, placing giant e-retailers square in the scope of her target. 

In the United States, e-commerce is skyrocketing, growing from a $441.51 billion industry in 2017 into a market valued at $759.47 billion in 2020. Amazon.com has the largest market share – about 40 percent – among leading e-retailers, followed by Walmart, 7 percent, and eBay, about 4 percent.

Gonzales said she authored AB 701 to help decrease worker injury, encourage more transparency and end the use of production quotas at corporations and government agencies, which critics say contribute to low job satisfaction and harmful working conditions. 

“Workers are risking their bodies to guarantee same-day delivery and being pushed to the point that many can’t even break long enough to use the bathroom. There is no excuse for a company to prioritize customers’ convenience and their own profits over the safety of their workers,” said Gonzales. 

In March 2020, Irene Tung and Deborah Berkowitz released a National Employment Law Project (NELP) report titled, “Amazon’s disposable workers: high injury and turnover rates at fulfillment centers in California.”

Data from Amazon’s own records have confirmed that Amazon warehouses have stunningly high injury rates.

According to the study: “Workers who can’t keep up extreme productivity goals are fired or encouraged to quit.” 

“Amazon workers around the country have reported being subject to unsustainably fast productivity requirements resulting in injury and exhaustion. Workers describe pushing their bodies to the brink to avoid automatic termination for missing quotas,” the NELP report stated. 

“Data from the company’s own records have confirmed their accounts showing that Amazon warehouses have stunningly high injury rates.”

Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, chairperson of Assembly Labor Committee; state Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, chair of Senate Labor Committee; state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles; and chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, all attended the rally. 

Jones-Sawyer said his 19-year-old son worked at Amazon this past summer before heading off to college in Colorado. He got sick and had to take time off work. When he returned to work, after three weeks he was fired. 

At an Amazon fulfillment center in San Bernardino, Calif., most of the workers are people of color. Generally, 75 percent of warehouse workers in California are minorities. Of that number, about 55 percent are Latinx and about 9 percent are Black. – Photo: Irfan Khan, LA Times, TNS

“Unfortunately, he saw all the bad things about working in a factory,” Jones-Sawyer said. He said he attended the rally for his son. 

“So that’s why I am here, not only for my son but all the other sons who don’t have fathers who could speak up for them,” he said. “When it comes back to the Assembly for concurrence, I will stand up, speak up and vote for it again.”

The language in AB 701 directs the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to establish new standards by Jan. 1, 2023, that are “designed to minimize the risk of injuries and disorders among warehouse employees who are subject to production quotas.” 

The California of Commerce (CalChamber) labeled AB 701 “job killer legislation” in April and criticized it as one of “23 legislative bills that would place California employers and the state’s economy in harm’s way” should it become law.

In California, Amazon warehouses are located in counties whose populations are “overwhelmingly people of color.

“[AB 701] threatens warehouse employers with duplicative costly litigation by creating a new, independent private right of action and a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) for failing to comply with vague standards,” CalChamber said in a statement. The organization is the largest business advocate in California.

In California, Amazon warehouses are located in counties whose populations are “overwhelmingly people of color,” according to the NELP study. Combined, nearly 75 percent of warehouse workers are minorities. Of that number, about 55 percent are Latinx and about 9 percent are Black. 

AB 701, if signed by Gov. Newsom, would require employers to inform employees about quotas that corporations and organizations set to measure their performance. 

The legislation requires employers to quantify the work employees are expected to do. They must explain specific tasks and how meeting those goals may affect their job standing.

The bill also prohibits an employer from taking disciplinary action – including firing – against employees for failure to meet quotas that have not been disclosed to them. In addition, the legislation prohibits quotas that do not allow a worker to comply with meal or rest periods or occupational health and safety laws.

California Black Media, serving California’s Black press, boasts a record of ensuring that the Black viewpoint remains central to all the debates that shape life in California. Antonio Ray Harvey and other members of the CBM staff can be reached at info@cablackmedia.org