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News / Business

Amazon, other Washington companies soon must say how fast workers are working

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: May 1, 2023, 6:02am

Washington workers at risk of getting injured on the job may soon receive more protection from state regulators, due to two worker safety bills that recently passed the Legislature.

One bill will expand the state’s authority to make new rules for industries with high rates of musculoskeletal disorders, which include sprains, strains and back injuries. The other requires employers to shed more light on quotas set for warehouse workers, part of an effort to ensure those expectations aren’t increasing a worker’s risk of injury.

Both pieces of legislation come as warehouse workers increasingly speak up about working conditions and demand meaningful protections.

Warehouse workers across industries have said they feel pressure from employers to move fast — or face discipline. That pace of work could encourage employees to cut corners, like skipping a meal break or using the wrong technique to lift an item, advocates of the legislation have argued.

Last year, a similar bill related to quotas for warehouse workers stalled in the Legislature. This year, Rep. Beth Doglio, a Democrat representing parts of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, introduced House Bill 1762 to tackle concerns about the pace of work in some of Washington’s warehouses, including at Amazon.

“I think people have awakened to what is going on,” Doglio said. “I think people care about workers — in the Legislature and in the state. I don’t want to continue to put people at risk.”

At Amazon warehouses, Washington’s safety regulators determined the fast pace was, in fact, putting workers at risk. In an inspection of Amazon’s facility in DuPont, regulators found a “direct connection” between the incidence of injuries at the warehouse and Amazon’s expectation that employees “maintain a very high pace of work.” Since then, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries has issued four citations against Amazon facilities in the state.

Amazon has appealed those citations and says it does not set quotas for its workers. The company has performance expectations based on several factors, including how a team is performing at a particular site, the company said.

The bill defines a quota as a “work performance standard” that requires an employee to work at a certain speed, or perform a quantified number of tasks or handle a quantified amount of material within a specific time period.

Under the new legislation, Labor and Industries could investigate and take action if a quota puts workers at risk. A quota would violate the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act if it does not provide enough time for workers to use the bathroom or take rest breaks, including travel time, or for workers to access tools or equipment needed to safely perform their job duties.

The legislation, which takes effect in July 2024, would require employers to provide a written description of quotas to employees and update them if those expectations change. Employers must provide information about quotas, an individual’s work speed data and aggregated work speed data at that facility if an employee requests it. The bill applies to companies that employ 100 or more workers at a single warehouse, or 1,000 or more employees at multiple warehouses in the state.

A worker can request that information up to three years after leaving the company.

The bill also prevents employers from retaliating against workers who ask for information about quotas or work speed.

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While advocates of the legislation argue the bill will offer more transparency for workers, opponents say discussions about day-to-day expectations should remain between employers and employees.

Doglio and Rep. Steve Conway, a Democrat representing Tacoma who introduced a similar bill last year, have said the legislation is largely targeting Amazon warehouses; the rate of injury at the DuPont facility is among the highest in the country.

“These are our friends, family members and neighbors living in our state,” the lawmakers wrote in a recent op-ed in The Seattle Times. “They should not experience life-threatening injuries, constant pain, and punishing health care costs just for trying to make a decent wage and provide for their families.”

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company measures performance on expectations that consider time, tenure, peer performance and adherence to safe work practices. Employees can access their personal performance data using a kiosk at the facility, the spokesperson said.

Employees are also free to take breaks and managers are told that productivity and speed should not be pressed at the expense of safety, Amazon maintains.

“The safety and health of our employees is our top priority, and we’re always looking for additional ways to enhance safety at our sites,” said Rachael Lighty, an Amazon spokesperson.

The legislation passed the House with a vote of 53 to 42, and the Senate with a vote of 29 to 20.

Expanding authority

Meanwhile, Washington lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 5217, which will reverse a decades-old prohibition for the Department of Labor and Industries from setting new rules for industries that had a high rate of injuries.

Back in 2000, the department put in place ergonomic standards to do just that.

The regulations would have required employers to take steps to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, in the workplace. MSDs include injuries such as sprains, tears, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and other connective tissue diseases and disorders. In the workplace, they are caused from bending, reaching, twisting or standing, as well as overexertion or repetitive motions.

Three years later, after a campaign led by business groups, voters passed Initiative 841 and repealed the new regulations. The initiative also prohibited the department from putting similar regulations in place in the future. Business groups at the time said the regulations were too complex, vague and bureaucratic.

This year, the Legislature repealed Initiative 841, opening the door for new rules for certain industries.

The legislation includes some restrictions on the department’s rule-making. The department cannot make more than one set of rules for an industry within a 12-month period. It must consider whether that industry has shown a downward trend in injury rates. And it cannot set up any emergency rules for an industry.

The department can adopt rules only for industries that have consistently had a high rate of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. The legislation defines a high rate as an industry that has reported workers’ compensation claims for MSDs that were twice the overall state claim rate for these types of injuries over a five-year period.

By November every year, the department will publish a list of industries that could be eligible for rule making. It must also identify a list of industries that are on the cusp of being eligible, and then direct resources to help those groups reduce injury rates. The resources include technical assistance and ergonomists who can provide consultation to employers.

The department could start making rules in July 2026.

“I think it does create a lot of transparency and accountability and the ability for companies to self correct before governments get involved,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, the Redmond Democrat who sponsored the legislation. “Any time you publish a list of claims, that public disclosure, that transparency, that kind of puts people on notice.”

As they did 20 years ago, business groups expressed concern. The regulations will be costly and burdensome, representatives from trade groups said in public hearings this year. Employers are already doing all they can to reduce injuries, the representatives said, and the legislation is repetitive since the department already has some authority to set up rules.

But supporters of the bill say it is designed to focus only on the industries where workers are at the highest risk of injury, and could help decrease a type of injury that workers have been experiencing for decades.

“At the end of the day, businesses want their workers to be safe, and workers want to be safe,” Dhingra said. “And when you always start with that value statement — which is a joint value statement — it just comes down to process.”

The legislation passed the Senate with a vote of 27 to 21, and the House with a vote of 51 to 46. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill Thursday.