Workplace

Amazon warehouses have notorious injury rates. States are finally doing something about it.

Forget Washington: How states' officials are leading an Amazon crackdown.

A worker sorts out parcels in the outbound dock at Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale

Proposed quota transparency bills aim to give workers more control over how they perform their work, ideally reducing injuries that occur when people cut corners or push their bodies past their limit to meet productivity standards.

Photo: Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

In DuPont, Washington, an Amazon fulfillment center has been fined twice in the last year for, among other issues, setting grueling expectations that increase workplace injuries. When Washington State Senator Steve Conway heard about the citations from the state’s labor department (which Amazon is appealing), he asked Amazon if he could tour the facility. He’d recently read a report showing Amazon’s injury rates are nearly twice the national average for the warehousing and fulfillment industry, and, since he’d worked in warehousing earlier in his career, he wanted to see for himself what was different about this one.

The company agreed, but they sent him to a different warehouse, in Kent, Washington, instead. “I asked for documents that would lay out some of the issues that came up in terms of the quotas, and they of course didn’t provide me any information. Maybe because they have lawsuits, sometimes businesses do that,” he told Protocol about his warehouse tour. “The only thing they provided me was the job descriptions they use in recruiting workers; that was all I saw. I asked them specifically when I was at the warehouse for that information and they wouldn't provide it.”

Now, Conway is the co-sponsor and author of a bill under consideration in Washington state targeted straight at Amazon’s productivity metrics. The bill is designed to give fulfillment center workers the legal right to ask Amazon for a description of their productivity requirements in writing, as well as data about their own past productivity. The bill also creates ways for workers to report the company if they believe the requirements are inhibiting meal and rest breaks.

In theory, the proposed quota transparency bill would allow workers more control over how they perform their work, ideally reducing injuries that occur when people cut corners or push their bodies past their limit because they are worried about failing to meet productivity standards.

Conway is not the only state politician to propose a bill like this one. A nearly identical bill was signed into law in California by Governor Gavin Newsom in late 2021 and went into effect in Jan. 2022, and state politicians in Minnesota, New Hampshire and elsewhere have proposed similar laws this year.

State officials across the country first grew serious about investigating Amazon’s warehouse injury rates after the release of a 2021 report from a pro-union research group called the Strategic Organizing Center. The report used data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — the federal version of the same Washington labor agency that sets worker’s comp rates — to show that nationally, the rate of serious injury at Amazon was more than double that of Walmart. Amazon is the country’s second-largest private sector employer, surpassed only by Walmart, and is expected to become the largest within the next year or two as it adds hundreds of thousands of U.S.-based jobs in delivery, warehousing and corporate.

Many of the local politicians proposing this bill in their respective states have realized that Amazon is now one of the largest employers of their constituents, which has increased their interest and scrutiny of the company. The national SOC report, combined with the success of the California bill, spurred politicians like Conway to pay closer attention to local safety reports, like the safety citations for the DuPont facility, leading eventually to the proposed warehouse quota bill in Washington and elsewhere.

Amazon did not lobby for or against the Washington bill during a state hearing Jan. 27, and the company told Protocol it does not take a position on proposed legislation. Amazon has also insisted that it does not require productivity quotas and pointed Protocol to a safety report that states: “We are seeing improvements in our key safety indicators — for example, Amazon’s worldwide Lost Time Incident Rate (LTIR), a measure of the number of injuries, per 100 employees, that resulted in missed work — reduced from 4.0 in 2019 to 2.3 in 2020, a 43% improvement.”

During the Washington state bill hearing, the state’s Department of Labor and Industries answered questions and seemed to also advocate for the bill by highlighting that worker’s comp insurance premiums were continuing to skyrocket in Amazon facilities. According to new 2022 data from Washington’s labor department, the most increasingly dangerous industry in the state in 2021 — according to insurance price percentage increases — was sugar refineries. The second-most was Amazon fulfillment centers.

In 2021, workers’ comp claims, usually made when someone has been injured at work, were high enough to push the cost of this year’s insurance premiums for Amazon fulfillment centers up by nearly 20% in Washington (second-only to sugar refineries in increase). The nearly one-fifth increase built on a 15% increase from 2021, when, for the first time, Washington’s labor regulator decided to separate insurance rates for automated fulfillment centers (run almost entirely by Amazon) from all other kinds of warehousing, effectively treating Amazon as its own industry.

Why separate them? Because Amazon workers were filing insurance claims at a rate so much higher than everywhere else that the injuries at Amazon were driving up insurance costs for other warehouses, like those that store food for grocery stores. And once automated fulfillment centers were separated from other types of warehouses, the premiums for almost everyone else in the industry fell by 20%. (While a worker could try to file an insurance claim for an injury that didn’t occur at work, insurance premiums increase based on claim rates because there is a defined linear relationship between claim rates and injury rates.)

While Amazon did not testify at the Jan. 27 hearing for Conway’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Washington Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser, the bill’s most significant opponent was a representative for the Association of Washington Business, who argued that the bill could create significant regulatory overreach, add an undue burden on local businesses and restate labor protections that already exist under state law. “I have great concerns with the overreach and the broadness of dealing with workplace metrics. Workplace metrics are common in all industries — we have hours and billable hour requirements as an attorney. Metrics are common everywhere; this is just an attempt to overreach,” Bob Battles, AWB’s general counsel, said in the hearing. “Meals and rest breaks are already regulated. If you fail to give those, there are penalties. This does not do anything other than try to focus on a particular industry.”

But Conway told Protocol after the hearing that the revelations about workers’ comp premiums would be important to business groups like the AWB — since local businesses don’t want their insurance affected by injury issues at places like Amazon — and felt like the data might help him to gain support from Battles and his allies. “I was pleased that the AWB wanted to meet,” Conway said. “The fact that Amazon was pushing up worker comp rates for this particular warehouse industry is an important issue for the business community.”

Tyler Hamilton has worked for four years at one of Amazon’s largest fulfillment centers in Minnesota, where a warehouse quota transparency bill similar to the one in Washington is currently under consideration. Hamilton doesn’t oppose rate or productivity expectations in general – often, they are appropriate and needed, he said. But when workers are lifting or packing kitty litter or canned food rather than pillows or toilet paper, the expectations should evolve based on how hard the task can be. “Other companies have expectations for things like rate and productivity. The FedEx warehouse has rates you’re supposed to hit,” he said. “But you are not held to that in the very stringent ways that Amazon [holds its employees]. That difference in culture then leads to those big differences in injury rates. It can be perfectly reasonable at times to make whatever the rate is, that doesn’t mean it is all the time. There are different circumstances that come up in the warehouse.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and some of its members testified in support of the Washington state bill on Jan. 27; the union voted last year to make organizing Amazon warehouse and delivery drivers a national union priority and also advocated for the California version of the law last year. According to Doug Bloch, the director for teamsters in Northern California, the Central Valley and Nevada, the California bill granted Amazon workers some of the information they might otherwise achieve through union bargaining if they were working in a unionized warehouse, provided they ask for this information. (Union contracts often define productivity expectations and how worker productivity is tracked and reported.)

For the law to have any measurable impact in California (or elsewhere, if it is approved in Washington or other states), workers in Amazon warehouses need to know they now have the right to ask for productivity expectations and data, and Bloch believes that most aren’t aware of the change. “Teamsters are certainly helping to begin to spread information so workers know their rights, about being able to request this information,” he said.

“[The bill is] one of many things that would be ultimately needed. It’s probably one of the easier things to try to get done, because it’s focused mostly on transparency. It doesn’t change the system in any way, but it provides people transparency so they know what they are getting into, and so they don’t get blindsided or caught by surprise,” Hamilton said.

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