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New federal bill aims to slow pace of work at Amazon, other warehouses

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: May 3, 2024, 7:45am

SEATTLE — The fight to change warehouse working conditions that has been playing out in state legislatures is now headed to Washington, D.C.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., introduced legislation Thursday that would put new safeguards in place for warehouse workers who are expected to move quickly and face intense oversight, increasing the possible risk of injury.

Similar to state bills that lawmakers, including in Washington, have passed recently, the Warehouse Worker Protection Act would ban production quotas that require workers to move at an unsafe pace, skip bathroom or restroom breaks or cut corners in their work in order to keep up with expectations. It would require companies to disclose more information about the quotas workers are expected to meet and to notify them if those standards change.

The bill would also authorize the Department of Labor to investigate and intervene if it finds a company is setting a pace of work that increases employees’ risk of injury or withholding information about worker expectations.

“In short, the Warehouse Worker Protection Act says workers are not disposable resources,” Markey said at a news conference Thursday. “Injuries are not just the cost of doing business. The cost of doing business in this country is guaranteeing worker safety and dignity, and not just profits.”

Lawmakers in Washington passed a similar bill last year that is set to go in effect in July. After a public comment period that ended in April, the state Department of Labor and Industries is still ironing out some of the details.

Washington’s law applies to companies that employ 100 workers or more at a single warehouse, or 1,000 workers or more at multiple warehouses in the state.

At both the federal and state levels, the legislation is aimed at warehouse companies in general but advocates continually pointed to one company where they hope to see the legislation have an impact: Amazon.

That’s because, advocates said, Amazon has a higher rate of injury than its warehouse peers and has been accused of firing or disciplining workers if they fail to keep up with the strict pace requirements. At the same time, the advocates continued, Amazon has been accused of using technology in its warehouses to closely track its workers’ movements and the number of packages that each employee moves.

At Thursday’s news conference, two Amazon workers who have suffered injuries on the job said the legislation would help ensure they don’t have to choose between a paycheck and the risk of getting hurt on the job.

“Amazon’s business model pushes workers to the brink and creates a culture of fear and competition between co-workers,” said Sean O’Brien, president of the Teamsters union, which helped introduce the federal legislation Thursday.

The bill is “about ending abusive and arbitrary production quotas that Amazon and other employers are spreading. It’s about enforcing transparency and accountability,” he said.

Amazon disputes those allegations. A spokesperson said Thursday that the company’s injury rate has improved over the last few years, and that it has invested more than $1 billion in technology, resources and training to further safety efforts.

Amazon does not have quotas in its warehouses, the spokesperson said, and employees are able to see how they are performing at any time. If an employee is struggling, Amazon works with them to offer more training and coaching, the spokesperson continued.

On Thursday, after the federal bill’s introduction, some business groups began to push back on the proposal. The Coalition for Workplace Safety, a group of trade associations, said in a statement that the new legislation would make it harder for businesses to operate and micromanage warehouses.

Marc Freedman, vice president for workplace policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote that the bill would deny employers due process rights for violations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and allow unions too much authority in determining what constitutes a hazard for workers.

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The legislation is a “bad bill whose time has not come,” Freedman wrote.

Anticipating pushback from some companies, Markey said Thursday “we won’t be able to pass this without a fight.”

“But we are building a movement here … We are taking back the rights of warehouse workers.”