Amazon is easing up on its use of a tool that dings warehouse workers for taking breaks, after a state regulator last month found a “direct connection” between high injury rates at Amazon facilities and the company’s relentless pace of work.
Amazon will scale back its monitoring of employees’ “time off task,” a measure of worker productivity, Amazon logistics chief Dave Clark announced in a blog post Tuesday. Employees begin accruing time off their tasks when they stop engaging with Amazon’s software — for instance, by scanning packages — for a certain length of time, often five minutes. Workers who rack up enough time off task can be disciplined or fired.
Starting Tuesday, Amazon will average time-off-task reports “over a longer period,” Clark wrote. Rather than using time off task to measure worker productivity, Amazon will use the metric to monitor for system failures, Clark wrote, in line with how the tool was originally designed.
“Seeing that an employee is not logged on to the software tools for long periods of time (typically more than half an hour) is a good indicator of operational systemic defects,” Clark wrote. “It prompts managers to engage with an employee in an effort to understand what barriers the employee is facing so they can be fixed.”
It remains to be seen whether Amazon’s new time off task policy amounts to anything more than public relations, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration official and current director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project.
Nowhere in the blog post does Amazon “own up to the fact that they need to fix their workplace,” Berkowitz said. “Time off task is a real culprit when it comes to driving workers to work beyond their physical limits.”
In the same blog post, Clark also announced Amazon will no longer screen job applicants for marijuana use, so long as they aren’t applying for a position behind the wheel of a car or truck.
Amazon’s pervasive surveillance of workers’ productivity has been a consistent source of frustration for employees, some of whom have said they feel so closely tracked that they are afraid to use the restroom.
Amazon has recently faced heat for its high warehouse injury rates. An analysis of federal workplace injury data published Tuesday by the labor group Strategic Organizing Center found injury rates at Amazon facilities were higher than industry averages and competitors Walmart and UPS.
Last month, Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries linked Amazon’s productivity monitoring tools to above-industry-average injury rates at Amazon warehouses.
Amazon’s expectation that warehouse employees “maintain a very high pace of work” or face discipline is directly tied to the incidence of injuries at the warehouse, regulators concluded after an inspection of Amazon’s DuPont, Pierce County, fulfillment center.
“The employer’s current approach has resulted in hazardous exposures in the workplace,” the citation stated. In addition to using different equipment to lessen strain on workers’ muscles and joints and implementing aspects of the company’s ergonomics program, the agency suggested Amazon rethink how quickly it expects workers to perform their jobs, and how often workers are able to take breaks.
Amazon declined to respond to questions about whether the new policy, which the company cast in the light of CEO Jeff Bezos’ promise to turn Amazon into “Earth’s Safest Place to Work,” was spurred by the state regulator’s citation. The company disagrees with the agency’s findings and has appealed the citation, said Amazon spokesperson Rena Lunak.
Injury rates at Amazon warehouses fell last year, after several successive years of increases, the Strategic Organizing Center report found. In the early months of the pandemic, Amazon told employees they would not be disciplined for falling short of company targets for how many tasks they complete each hour or taking time off task to follow safety protocols like hand-washing.
By October, though, Amazon had reinstated its productivity goals, a move some employees called “oppressive and dangerous.” As the company struggled to digest a massive influx of pandemic-induced online shopping, turnover rates swelled to double the averages for the retail and warehousing industries.
Amazon changed course on employees’ pot use “given where state laws are moving across the U.S.,” Clark wrote in the blog post. Marijuana is legal for adult consumption in 16 states — including Washington — and Washington, D.C.
A New York man sued Amazon in March, saying the company yanked his job offer at an Amazon warehouse after he tested positive for marijuana. The city banned employers from testing job applicants for cannabis last year.
Amazon will also support legislation to legalize and tax marijuana at the federal level and expunge criminal records for marijuana-related convictions, Clark wrote.