A bathroom-break bill? California looks to make sure warehouse workers can take a break

OAKLAND, Calif.— A new California bill aims to change working conditions for warehouse workers who have come under increased productivity pressure from major retailers that track their every move.

The bill, AB3056, aims to ensure that workers are not penalized for time spent on personal hygiene such as hand washing or using the restroom. Many workers say that automated monitoring systems warn management if they spend too much time “off task.”

The bill would apply to warehouse workers who work for Amazon, Walmart, Target and other large retailers across the state, which has the most warehouses of any state in the United States, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, it passed the California state assembly last month, largely along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor.

The bill would also ensure that warehouse workers are paid overtime if they are compelled to work beyond their prescribed work “quota” in a given day.

The rise of ecommerce has led Amazon, Walmart, Target and other retailers to ramp up the use of massive warehouses, where workers are expected to work quickly to fulfill online orders. Workers at these facilities often have strict productivity quotas, which can mean that they sometimes avoid taking restroom breaks to mitigate potential retribution.

Some Amazon employees have previously said that at certain warehouses the restrooms are so far from their primary work station that they simply don’t use the restrooms lest they risk being marked as “time off task.” Such concerns have mounted so much so that in late April, hundreds of workers even organized a “sick out” protest across several cities nationwide.

“Automated systems generate warnings when too many time off tasks occur in a worker’s shift, and accumulated warnings can result in workers being fired without a human manager even being involved,” the bill’s author, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, wrote in a May 20 press release.

Amazon spokeswoman Brittany Parmley declined to respond to most of NBC News’ queries, including questions regarding how many fulfillment centers are in California and how many people work at them.

Parmley wrote in an email that employees are required to take meals and rest breaks.“They are NEVER restricted from using the restroom or washing hands, and may speak to HR or a manager at any time without penalty,” she wrote. “Restrooms are on every floor of a [fulfillment center] and are a short walk away from each workstation.”

Walmart and Target did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However, labor law observers and advocates say that if the bill passes the state senate, and is signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, California will likely be the first state to pass this type of labor protections for warehouse workers.

Gonzalez, who was the architect of a separate state law that pushes Uber and Lyft to consider their drivers as employees, said in a recent phone interview that COVID-19 has exacerbated problems that she says are inherent to this type of blue-collar work.

“The speed at which they are required to do their work makes it nearly impossible for workers to be able to do the human functions,” she said. “It’s more important than ever that workers can wash their hands.”

Parmley said Amazon does not have an official position on the bill.However, in a June 11 letter to Assemblymembers, the California Chamber of Commerce, of which Amazon is a member, said that it was opposed to the bill as it would increase “costs and burden on employers,” adding that the bill was “simply not realistic or feasible, and would harm the very workers it purports to protect.”Outside labor experts have noted that pushing workers to perform more work in a given unit of time means that many of these workers are being squeezed like never before.

“Increasing quotas is how you make labor cheaper,” said Shelly Steward, the associate director for research at the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative. “This legislation speaks to that and puts a limit to that that is tied to wages and it’s the first legislation I’ve seen that speaks to the pace of work. It’s sad that we’re at a point that we need a law to protect workers’ right to go to the restroom, but that’s where we are.”

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