At a Fred Meyer distribution center, Matthew Collins’ job is timed down to fractions of a second.
His employer knows exactly how long it should take to fill an order — and will hold him to that ticking clock, said Collins, who has worked at the warehouse for 22 years.
“If I’m unable to build my order within that range of time that it is assigned to me, I won’t make standard,” he said. “Fred Meyers’ production standard requires me to average 100% over the week.”
As a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 117, Collins said he knows what standard is expected for him to be able to keep his job and has a process in place to audit that standard to ensure it protects workers’ health and safety rights.
But, in an industry that has been criticized for high injury rates and high worker turnover, that isn’t always the case, he said.
Sen. Steve Conway, a Democrat representing Tacoma, introduced legislation this month that would require employers to disclose more information about quotas that workers at large warehouses are expected to fill, part of an effort to ensure those requirements don’t put workers at risk by encouraging them to skip breaks or cut corners to meet the threshold.
“Cutting corners” could mean working through lunch or trying to speed up the process by using improper lifting techniques or not leaving a safe distance from other machine operators, said John Scearcy, a principal officer for Teamsters 117.
The bill “will ensure workers in these systems that working conditions, breaks, lunches, necessary travel time and safety protocol are figured in — truly figured in — to the quota,” he said Thursday at a public hearing for the legislation.
Along with defining quotas, employers would have to disclose the consequences for failing to meet the requirement as well as bonuses or incentives for passing the threshold. It would prohibit employers from setting quotas that infringe on workers’ health and safety rights and require employers to establish safety committees that meet quarterly.
The proposed legislation would apply to employers with 100 or more workers at a single warehouse-distribution center or businesses with 1,000 or more total employees at distribution centers across the state.
That category includes Amazon, which employs more than 80,000 workers total in Washington, according to Conway, who is the vice chair of the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee.
By the end of 2020, Amazon employed nearly 20,000 in Washington to load and unload planes and trucks, store millions of items of merchandise and pack boxes at its warehouses around the state. Some of those workers also filled roles at Amazon’s expanding physical retail footprint in the state.
Amazon has come under scrutiny in the last few years for pressuring warehouse employees to fill orders quickly and work at speeds that could exacerbate injuries.
Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries cited the company in May for violating the law after an inspection of Amazon’s DuPont, Pierce County, fulfillment center. Regulators found a “direct connection” between the incidence of injuries at the warehouse and Amazon’s expectation that warehouse employees “maintain a very high pace of work” or else face discipline.
State safety regulators cited the same facility again this month for similar violations, according to Tammy Fellin, legislative director with the Department of Labor and Industries.
The first citation is currently under appeal, Fellin said, and the labor department expects Amazon will appeal the second.
The violations each came with a $7,000 fine, the maximum amount under the state’s health and safety rules, Fellin said.
Amazon said Thursday it had not yet received a second citation. The company declined to comment on the proposed legislation.
The investigations and citations already issued could be a sign that legislation of this type isn’t needed, Sen. Curtis King, a Republican representing parts of Yakima, said at Thursday’s hearing.
“If you are already going after and issuing safety violations, it seems to me the system that we have in place is working,” King said. “And it’s working in the very warehouse that this bill seems to be going after.”
In the week leading up to the hearing, Amazon released a report on worker safety that found the rate of injury at the company had declined year over year.
The recordable incident rate, which measures how often an injury or illness occurs at work, improved 24% from 2019 to 2020. The lost time incident rate, which accounts for the number of injuries and illnesses that result in time away from work, improved 43%.
Amazon’s injury rate was still higher than the average for warehouses in the U.S., the report found. Amazon recorded 6.4 injuries for every 200,000 working hours at its U.S. facilities in 2020. The industry average for the same time period was 5.5.
A 2020 investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found workers at Amazon fulfillment centers were getting seriously hurt at rates more than double the industry average. Workers at Amazon’s DuPont facility were injured at a higher rate than at any other large Amazon warehouse in the U.S.
“The new kind of automated warehousing distribution centers that Amazon has created, even though it’s highly automated and mostly conveyor belts … with computers guiding those conveyor belts, it also involves many employees who have to check in, check out, direct packaging and load trucks,” Conway said.
“It is also a warehouse where the conveyor belt never stops.”
Conway modeled the legislation off a similar bill signed into law in California in September.
Bob Battles, director of government affairs at the Association of Washington Business, argued at Thursday’s hearing that quotas like the ones Amazon and other major retailers use are common in every industry. Sometimes they just go by a different name: workplace metrics.
“I have great concerns with the overreach and broadness of dealing with workplace metrics,” Battles said. “This doesn’t do anything other than try to focus on a particular industry in an overbroad and unfair way.”
But, since Amazon is one of the largest employers in the state, Conway said, “we need to address the problem.”