The Washington Post Sunday

Lawmakers are seeking an investigat­ion into working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses.

- BY JAY GREENE jay.greene@washpost.com

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 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 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.

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 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.

The current version of Gillibrand’s 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.

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.

 ?? CAMERON CARNES FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., above, sought to form a union this year. Several lawmakers and critics say Amazon’s policies lead to injuries and don’t protect pregnant workers.
CAMERON CARNES FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., above, sought to form a union this year. Several lawmakers and critics say Amazon’s policies lead to injuries and don’t protect pregnant workers.

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