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

Amazon workers, among others, could have bathroom breaks enshrined into state law.
An employee collects items ordered by customers through the company's two-hour delivery service Prime Now in a warehouse in San Francisco
An employee collects items ordered by customers through the company's two-hour delivery service, Prime Now, in a warehouse in San Francisco on Dec. 20, 2017.Jeffrey Dastin / Reuters file

OAKLAND, Calif. — A 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, AB-3056, 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 automated monitoring systems warn management if they spend too much time "off task."

The bill would apply to warehouse workers for Amazon, Walmart, Target and other large retailers across California, which has the most warehouses of any state, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, the measure passed the state Assembly, 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.

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The rise of e-commerce 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 often have strict productivity quotas, which can mean they sometimes avoid taking restroom breaks to avoid potential retribution.

Some Amazon employees have said that at certain warehouses, the restrooms are so far from their primary workstations that they simply do not use the restrooms lest they risk being marked as "off task." In late April, hundreds of workers even organized a "sickout" 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, Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, wrote in a news release May 20.

Amazon spokeswoman Brittany Parmley declined to respond to most queries, including questions about 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.

Labor law observers and advocates say that if the bill passes the state Senate and is signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, California would 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 classify their drivers as employees, said in a recent phone interview that COVID-19 has aggravated problems that she said 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. In a June 11 letter to Assembly members, the California Chamber of Commerce, of which Amazon is a member, said it opposed the bill, as it would increase "costs and burden on employers," adding that the measure was "simply not realistic or feasible, and would harm the very workers it purports to protect."

Outside labor experts have said pushing workers to perform more work in a given time means many of those workers are being squeezed like never before.

"Increasing quotas is how you make labor cheaper," said Shelly Steward, 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."