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September 23, 2021 11:45 AM, EDT

New California Law Protects Warehouse Workers’ Breaks

New California Law Protects Warehouse Workers’ Breaks A warehouse filled with pallets of goods. (TT File Photo)

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California on Sept. 23 became the first state to bar mega-retailers from firing warehouse workers for missing quotas that interfere with bathroom and rest breaks under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The measure also bars retail companies such as Amazon.com Inc., and others from disciplining workers for following health and safety laws, and allows employees to sue to suspend unsafe quotas or reverse retaliation. The bill applies to all warehouse distribution centers.

“We cannot allow corporations to put profit over people,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in a news release announcing he had signed the law.

The law, AB 701, was authored by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a lawyer and former labor leader. She accused Amazon of disciplining warehouse workers at the direction of “an algorithm” that tracks employees’ activities and can determine that anything not directly related to moving packages is “off-task.”

Amazon did not respond for requests for comment on her legislation or allegations. The law gives large warehouse employers 30 days to disclose quotas to employees.

Workers who think their quotas lead to unsafe behavior can ask for 90 days’ documentation of how their work speed meets or fails the quota. Any discipline within that 90 days is presumed to be retaliation, as is any discipline within 90 days of an employee complaining to the company or a state agency about an unsafe quota.

California’s workplace regulators would have to consider investigating if a worksite or employer has an annual employee injury rate at least 1.5 times higher than the warehousing industry’s average annual injury rate, under her bill.

But 27 business organizations, led by the California Retailers Association, objected that California is home to thousands of warehouse distribution centers that together “provide quality jobs to hundreds of thousands of working-class Californians.”

The groups in a letter to lawmakers cited U.S. Department of Labor data that wages in the transportation and warehousing sector have risen more than 17% in the last year.

Amazon alone says it employs more than 150,000 Californians, including at dozens of “fulfillment centers.”

The legislation is “both burdensome and needlessly overbroad,” the business groups said, arguing that workers are protected by existing occupational safety standards.

In a statement, California Retailers Association President Rachel Michelin said the measure “will exacerbate our current supply chain issues, increase the cost of living for all Californians and eliminate good-paying jobs.”

“With California’s ports facing record backlogs of ships waiting off the coast and inflation spiking to the fastest pace in 13 years, AB 701 will make matters worse for everyone — creating more backordered goods and higher prices for everything from clothes, diapers and food to auto parts, toys and pet supplies,” Michelin said.

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