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California establishes extra protections for warehouse workers through new law

Virus Outbreak-Amazon
Posted at 3:51 PM, Oct 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-15 19:04:20-04

At a time when online shopping has become increasingly popular, warehouse workers are in high demand. Yesenia Barrera’s first warehouse job was at Amazon.

“You had to meet 100 items every hour, and you needed to have at least 200 by the second hour, which is before your break, so you had to break every two hours,” Barrera said.

She was a 19-year-old single mother and told she would have high pay and flexible hours. However, she says she was under constant surveillance, and the work was more stressful than she imagined. One time when boxes were piling up, she says she accidentally hit herself with her scan gun.

“It was in my right eye. I was stunned for a little I saw black, and I stopped scanning. I was just there for a couple of minutes. You know, my face was kind of throbbing because it's a pretty big scan gun. And that's when my manager had actually come in, and she was like, ‘Oh, what's going on here? Like, why’d you stop scanning?’”

When she wasn’t scanning, it was considered “time off task.” Barrera said one day, when she went to the bathroom multiple times outside of her breaks; they terminated her the next workday.

“I didn't even have any human interaction when they terminated me," Barrera said. "I never even got a call. I never even got an email. I just went to my next scheduled shift, and my badge didn't work.”

That experience is the reason why Yesenia is standing behind Assembly Bill 701. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed it.

The law, which is the first of its kind in the nation, will establish transparency measures for companies to disclose production quota descriptions to their workers and ensures workers can’t be fired for failing to meet an unsafe quota.

In a statement, Governor Newsom said, “We cannot allow corporations to put profit over people. The hardworking warehouse employees who have helped sustain us during these unprecedented times should not have to risk injury or face punishment as a result of exploitative quotas that violate basic health and safety.”

Warehouse workers see this as a big win, but California Retailers Association President Rachel Michelin says this legislation is concerning because it opens up warehouses and distribution centers to lawsuits.

“A lot of companies will spend millions of dollars defending themselves, even if they're in the right, and they'll end up settling because it's cheaper than going to court," Michelin said. "And those costs get passed on to consumers.”

Michelin says she is also worried overregulation will force these industries to leave California – taking away good-paying jobs. She argues companies can invest in their employees without government intervention.

Workers at construction manufacturing business RK Mechanical Industries say they’re delighted with the work culture there. Receiving Supervisor Hannah Courkamp says she left a job at Amazon to work at RK.

“The day-to-day is honestly a lot of fun," Courkamp said. "We have a really good working environment here. Our core values are safety, mentorship, accountability, relationships, and teamwork, and so every day, we live out those core values.”

The Colorado-based company has become a national leader in mental health wellness – checking in with its workers every morning to talk about things like suicide awareness or maintaining an excellent work-life balance. Courkamp says she loves the daily reminder from a sign as she leaves work.

“There's always more to just the mundane of work because we have people to go home to and people that care about us,” Courkamp said.

Barrera says she’s also had positive experiences at other warehouses. However, she believes the California law must keep big retailers in check and prevent other retailers from following the same model.

We reached out to Amazon multiple times to talk about Yesenia’s case and the bill but didn't hear back from the company before the deadline.

Both Barrera and Courkamp say instead of being a number, they want to be part of a community.