Lawmakers unveil warehouse protection bill that would help Amazon, Walmart workers
Jason Anthony, an Amazon worker and union organizer, keeps track of the ongoing count of votes to unionize an Amazon warehouse outside of the National Labor Relations Board in New York, on May 2, 2022. Amazon's union workers are aligning themselves with the Teamsters, overwhelmingly voting in favor of affiliation. The union members voted 98.3 percent in favor of the affiliation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Amazon's focus on speed and its constant surveillance of workers to the point of harassment are major factors in widespread injury to workers and in their support for unionization. | Seth Wenig/AP

WASHINGTON—Alarmed at the safety threats warehouse workers face nationally, especially if they work for Amazon and Walmart, a bipartisan group of four representatives unveiled federal legislation to mandate bosses disclose production quotas and ban production methods—notably high line speeds—that endanger warehouse worker health and safety.

“Businesses can keep workers safe and earn a profit, but that’s only possible with more transparency and more accountability to bring warehouse safety standards up to date,” explained Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., an Electrical Worker and co-chair of the Congressional Labor Caucus.

“The increasingly dangerous working conditions at warehouses across the country that result from these quota systems are wholly unacceptable,” added Norcross, former president of the South Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council and the measure’s lead sponsor.

The outlook for the legislation is unclear. Amazon and Walmart are sure to lead the corporate class in opposing it, and a Walmart front group, the Retail Industry Leaders Federation, is likely to join in.

Supporters include the United Food and Commercial Workers and its Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union sector, the Athena pro-worker coalition, the National Employment Law Project, and the AFL-CIO.

The measure’s been sent to the ideologically polarized Republican-run House Education and the Workforce Committee. Its chair, Rep, Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is a notorious hater of workers and unions.

That didn’t stop Norcross or his colleagues: Reps. Chris Smith, N.J., Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., and Haley Stevens, D-Mich. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Tina Smith DFL-Minn., introduced the warehouse workers’ bill there.

Lawmakers are upset by the high injury rates at the nation’s warehouses. Annual federal job safety and health statistics disclose an injury/illness rate of 5.5 per 100 employees for all warehouses, far above the injury/illness rate for all workers.

And labor-backed job safety organizations, along with an investigation by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, report the injury rate at Amazon warehouses is around eight per 100. Amazon alone accounts for just over half of all warehouse injuries, the studies show.

The high line speeds and production quotas not only injure workers but force them to toil continuously for long hours, often through supposedly mandatory half-hour meal breaks and without taking needed bathroom breaks. The new legislation bans warehouse firms and bosses from forcing such practices on the workers.

“The rate of injury and illness among warehouse workers is more than double the rate across all industries,” said Lawler. “While some steps have been taken to address working conditions over the years, many of our warehouse workers continue to endure conditions that are unsafe and intolerable. We must do better for these workers that form the backbone of the American economy.”

Left unmentioned by the lawmakers is that Lawler’s home state, New York, just enacted its own Warehouse Worker Protection law, pushed by the state’s unions, especially the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

And AlignNY reported just days before the lawmakers introduced the measure that “California investigated two Amazon facilities near Los Angeles” and found the monster and union-hater company failed to “provide written notice of quotas to which each employee is subject.” It fined Amazon $5.9 million for breaking the state’s warehouse worker protection law.

The production quotas—and the line speeds which force them—are the measure’s big targets.

Among other provisions, it would force bosses to give workers, when hired, written descriptions of the quotas, how performances are measured and calculated, available bonuses, and potential discipline for failure to meet quotas. Bosses would have to train workers on the right to file a complaint.

Firms can’t set quotas which would force workers to avoid mandatory meal and rest breaks, and can’t be set to bar bathroom breaks, including travel time to and from the john. Effective bans on bathroom breaks is a common complaint among Amazon workers.

The firm’s warehouses are so huge— several football fields in length—and breaks so short that workers don’t have enough time to both make the roundtrip and use the facilities. Then bosses write them up on workplace violations. Indeed, the short bathroom breaks were a big talking point in RWDSU’s campaign to organize the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

The employer can change quota systems, but only on two days’ advance notice. The boss would also have to tell the worker in advance of any “adverse action against them for failing to meet any quota.”

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration would jointly enforce the law if Congress approves it. But the lawmakers’ measure did not list specific penalties for warehouses and managers—or their corporate bosses—who break it.

“OSHA will be charged with establishing a proposed rule requiring all employers have trained individuals on site ready to administer first aid to workers to reduce delays in medical treatment for workers following injuries,” the fact sheet about the measure says.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.