Amazon warehouse workers face unsafe work conditions, DoorDash workers have to fight to get their rightfully earned wages and tips, and other gig workers say companies are not living up to the promises of employee-like benefits that they outlined in Proposition 22.
Labor law needs an overhaul, according to Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who told Protocol she is not giving up on her fight against gig-economy companies. She also refuses to sit by idly while Amazon warehouse workers reportedly get injured more often and more severely than workers in non-Amazon warehouses, she said.
Gonzalez is not new to the fight against tech companies. The passage of Prop 22, which had $224 million in funding from gig-economy companies, effectively undid AB 5, a California law that limits when companies can hire workers as contractors. Gonzalez, who authored AB 5, is focused this year on a handful of labor laws that pertain to both gig workers and warehouse workers.
"I want people to understand that it's targeted at warehouses, but why it's larger than that," she said. "It's management by AI. It's the algorithms, and how the algorithm doesn't take into account human factors."
Gonzalez's warehouse worker protections bill, AB 701, recently passed in the assembly with a 52-19 vote. Another of her bills, AB 1003, seeks to make wage theft a felony and, for the purposes of wage payment, would consider independent contractors as employees. A third bill, AB 286, would prohibit food delivery platforms from charging customers prices higher than the price set by the restaurant or grocery store, as well as make it illegal for companies to retain any money previously designated as a tip or gratuity. All three of those bills are now in the senate.
Protocol briefly caught up with Gonzalez to learn more about what drives her to develop policies in favor of workers, the importance of AB 701 and what's next on the docket as it relates to gig workers.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Why are workers' rights such a big focus for you and your legislation?
I came out of organized labor and I represent a working-class community — people who work really hard for a living. And a lot of service-sector workers. My experience in the field that I served in before being in the legislature opened my eyes, obviously, to worker violations in nearly every field.
I've seen so many organizing drives and contract fights. We've seen so many problems, and that's usually with workers who are empowered to try to make a difference in the workplace. It gets even worse for those who are not. But on a more emotional level, if you will, I was raised by a single mom who had to work 60 to 80 hours a week. She was a nurse. It was at a non-union facility until much later. And just watching the toll that really hard work puts on an individual and seeing how sometimes just some of the most basic labor protections can change people's lives.
The warehouse workers bill recently passed in the assembly. What prompted the creation of that bill?
I have been talking to warehouse workers for quite some time now. Logistics warehouses are big in my district because it's right across the border. Amazon is building I think its largest North America facility right in my district. So, I've been aware of the issue.
We started this bill last year before the pandemic, with the health and safety aspects of warehouse work and hearing from workers about the work pace, and that being basically unregulated. That really got to me. The workers who had to sue in order to use the restroom because the facility in Riverside took seven minutes to walk to. If you have 15 minutes, that doesn't allow for adequate use of the restroom.
As Amazon has more market share, of course, it puts pressure on everybody else to be operating at the same speed and it's the same type of conditions. If you look at the report that came out about injuries at Amazon, they're two times more likely to have injuries than other warehouses and three times more than average workers. So obviously there's a problem there. It's one I think we need to address because I don't see on-demand and next-day shipping going away. And so: How do we empower workers and do it in a way that they can be protected from unnecessary injuries?
How do you respond to those who say AB 701 might actually lead to Amazon and other employers removing jobs from California?
I think one of the important factors is: You have to look at service work in general as work that can't necessarily leave the state. Yes, you can move headquarters somewhere else, you can make something somewhere else, but when you're talking about logistics and moving packages, you're going to have to operate in California. In fact, they're building more [distribution centers] in California because we as a consumer class are disproportionate in the state to other states. So they can't operate without warehouses here.
It's really important when we talk about service work, which is often the lowest-paid and the most dangerous, that we don't fall into just talking points of, "They'll move it somewhere else," because these are jobs that can't be moved somewhere else. We either hear it's going to Texas or it's going to be automated. And, as I often say, the threat of the robot — I've heard that actually coming out of organized labor for like the last 20 years. Things will be automated, but in the meantime, that doesn't mean you throw away workers.
How optimistic are you that the warehouse bill will become law?
I'm hopeful we can get it through the Senate. It's timely. We just saw, on May 3, Amazon was fined pennies to them — $45,000 — for safety violations. We just saw a lawsuit filed about unpaid work for having to take COVID tests. That fits perfectly with this. Health and safety guidelines have to be adhered to and work has to provide for that. You can't have individuals provide for that on their own time. There's a reckoning. Jeff Bezos became more rich during the pandemic while some workers were dying. Hopefully that won't be lost on people when we talk about protecting workers.
Are there any misconceptions about the bill you'd like to address or set the record straight on?
I want people to understand that it's targeted at warehouses, but why it's larger than that. Because what it is, is it's management by AI. It's the algorithms, and how the algorithm doesn't take into account human factors. Like the things we don't like to talk about. The fact that women and men of certain ages might have to use the restroom more, and women who are menstruating may have to use the restroom more or for a longer period of time. Anyone who gets sick to their stomach. You know, there's so many factors involved — human factors that can't be taken into account by the algorithm, and so much of our work now is being driven by that. It's important that we start looking at these issues and this may be the first of them, in that sense, but it's one that I think really does dovetail with future work.
You were successful with getting AB 5 signed into law, and then, of course, Prop 22 happened. Do you have plans to continue advocating for gig workers rights through policy and legislation? If so, what will be your approach?
Well, absolutely. There are a couple of things. Obviously, we have a lot of hope in the federal government, now that Washington is a little bit more rational when it comes to gig work than we've seen even with state regulators. So that's nice. It was good to see the New York bill failed, which would have been devastating if that passed. A lot of the arguments used during Prop 22 were to cut a deal because the Trump administration said that these people aren't employees. We have a different situation now.
So some of it is monitoring what's happening, seeing if we can push harder on federal regulations. I think we're going to continue to look at ways that we can try to help gig workers, even under Prop 22. We have a bill this year that would make it a felony to engage in intentional wage theft. This is important because in California, we've elected more activist DAs who are willing to prosecute wage theft. And we wrote into the bill that [theft] includes the taking of tips from independent contractors. In November, DoorDash got caught stealing tips, which they paid back.
We're trying to strengthen ways in which workers can empower themselves despite Prop 22. We have a whole list of things we've been looking at. But there's no way around [Prop 22]. It's almost impossible, unless the Supreme Court, when they finally hear the case — because they wouldn't hear it quickly in California — unless they invalidate it, which is unusual. But [Prop 22 is] dangerous because it does have that seven-eighths requirement to legislate what's wrong with it. So we're going to keep working and hoping for a federal preemption.
The labor market is actually on our side as well, in the fact that they don't have enough drivers. Of course, it won't stay that way forever. And they're still engaging in predatory behavior, but there are a couple of things that will come out over the next year.
These companies, for whatever reason, can't seem to be satisfied, even with the rules that they wrote. It seems to me that the terms and conditions of what they promised in Prop 22 seems to be turning and whether they adhere to them, I think will be an issue of litigation as well. I can't say we're going to automatically be successful, but we have to continue to fight. It's too important and [we need] to stop the bleeding.
I think California is seeing right away what this actually did. You know you can spend $220 million and convince voters you're protecting workers. But I think there's a lot of Democratic voter hangover on what actually happened. So we're going to continue fighting and continue exposing these companies for the greedy bastards they are. That's the unfortunate truth, and I hope that some changes at the federal level will help with that.
So, I imagine you're pro-PRO Act?
Oh yes. I was pro-PRO Act before the PRO Act even existed! [Laughs] I fought for the Employee Free Choice Act years ago and was devastated by that. Our labor laws are so broken, and we do need changes at the federal level and obviously we're getting a lot through the Department of Labor and the NLRB. We will get a lot with some changes, but we need some substantive changes of the federal law.