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Amazon’s warehouse rules lead lawmakers to press for worker protections

Concerns about the high injury rate at Amazon’s warehouses are leading policymakers to push for legislative and regulatory reforms that limit the e-commerce giant’s ability to use performance metrics

Lawmakers are dialing up the pressure to hold Amazon accountable for workplace injuries and alleged indignities at its warehouses, such as this one in Kent, Wash. (Jovelle Tamayo for The Washington Post)

SEATTLE — Lawmakers are dialing up pressure on Amazon over policies that they claim lead to workplace injuries and indignities in its massive and growing warehouse operations.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Thursday sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, urging the agency to investigate “Amazon’s systemic failure to provide adequate accommodations” for pregnant warehouse employees. The letter cites cases in which Amazon didn’t modify job duties or allow reasonable time off, in possible violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Americans With Disabilities Act, according to the letter sent to EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows. Five other senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), signed onto Gillibrand’s letter.

“Amazon has been on notice, and it has failed to fix these problems,” Gillibrand said in an interview with The Washington Post. “One of the largest employers in America has insufficient accountability.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The investigation request comes as lawmakers are pressing Amazon to better protect its employees on other fronts. On Wednesday, California’s state Senate passed legislation aimed at curtailing the use of productivity quotas in warehouses, a practice Amazon uses at its facilities.

“If the company won’t protect workers, we need to step in,” said Lorena Gonzalez, the Democratic assemblywoman who wrote the measure. The bill will go back to the state Assembly, which passed an earlier version of the bill this spring. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) hasn’t indicated whether he supports the measure.

The New York state legislature is considering a bill that clarifies rules to ensure workers aren’t punished for reasonable absences, such as family leave. And the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries cited Amazon in May for the hazardous working conditions at a warehouse in DuPont, calling out Amazon’s productivity targets and how they leave too little time for workers to recover from the strain of work.

Amazon warehouse workers suffer serious injuries at higher rates than other firms

Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment about the spate of efforts to legislate or regulate its workplace productivity targets.

“We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders in April, in which he addressed workplace safety issues. “We set achievable performance goals that take into account tenure and actual employee performance data.”

The company has previously said that it spent more than $1 billion on safety measures in 2020, such as expanding a program that offers stretching, meditation and nutritional guidance, as well as buying personal protective equipment to prevent the coronavirus spread. It has also previously pointed to its hiring of more than 6,200 employees to its workplace health and safety group.

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Much of the new push focuses on productivity pressure at the e-commerce giant. The company tracks productivity with computers that show employees how many items they’ve stowed, picked or packed in an hour. Employees have complained over the years about the pressure to “make rate.” Missing those targets can lead managers to write up workers, a blemish on their record that can make it difficult to advance and can even lead to firings.

While other warehouse companies have used performance metrics, Amazon has aggressively digitized the effort and rolled it out on a massive scale.

Since the beginning of last year, Amazon has added 500,000 employees worldwide, most of whom work in its warehouses and delivery operations. The company is the nation’s second largest private employer, behind Walmart, employing 950,000 people in the United States.

“There is a growing understanding of how technology has been used to confuse and mislead workers, and deprive them of critical protections,” said Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance, an advocacy group that has helped pregnant workers file discrimination claims against employers including Amazon.

Gillibrand’s letter to the EEOC cites one of those cases, in which a pregnant worker at an Amazon warehouse in Oklahoma accused the company of denying requests to transfer to a less strenuous job as an accommodation for her high-risk pregnancy. Gillibrand said she is particularly concerned about the impact of the company’s constant performance monitoring.

“It’s Orwellian,” Gillibrand said. “You have Big Brother looking over your shoulder.”

Critics have said that Amazon’s productivity metrics are too onerous, leading workers to injure themselves. A Post investigation of work-related injury data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in June found that since 2017, Amazon reported a higher rate of serious injury incidents that caused employees to miss work or be shifted to light-duty tasks than at other warehouse operators in retail.

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The current version of her bill would require warehouse giants such as Amazon to disclose its productivity targets to employees. The measure would also bar quotas that can lead workers to skip taking state-mandated breaks or using the bathroom when needed, as well as prohibiting productivity metrics that prevent workers from complying with the state’s health and safety laws.

“We’ve got to provide workers with the tools to protect themselves,” Gonzalez said.

Amazon union election results should be scrapped over improprieties, NLRB officer recommends

Aggressive performance expectations were among the reasons employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., sought to form a union earlier this year. The drive ultimately failed in April with workers overwhelmingly opposing unionization by a more than a 2-to-1 margin. But those workers appear likely to get a second vote after a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer found that Amazon improperly pressured warehouse staff to vote against joining the union. The NLRB’s regional director in Atlanta, which oversaw the election, is expected to issue a final ruling that could set a date for a second election as soon as this month.