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Labor asks CT to regulate Amazon warehouse quotas

Amazon fulfillment center in Windsor, Connecticut. Warehouse distribution centers have become a bigger part of Connecticut’s economy in recent years.
Amazon fulfillment center in Windsor, Connecticut. Warehouse distribution centers have become a bigger part of Connecticut’s economy in recent years.

Connecticut legislation aimed at regulating Amazon’s use of quotas and biometric surveillance to keep warehouse workers “on task” drew dramatic testimony Thursday from labor and silence from Amazon.

Testifying anonymously by video, one worker described working for “the app,” an Amazon program that clocks them into highly automated warehouses, monitors the speed of their work, clocks them out and, on occasion, fires them.

Using the bathroom in Amazon’s massive fulfillment center requires a 10-minute round trip, a period marked as “time off task” by his electronic minder, said John Doe. His quota remains the same: packing 160 boxes an hour.

“I have to work twice as hard when I get back so I don’t lose my rate,” he said. As a result, he said, workers try to hold off on bathroom breaks until meal time.

The bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, would make Connecticut at least the third state after California and New York to require transparency and set limits on quotas in warehouses.

It would require employers to provide “a written description of each quota the employee is subject to, including any potential adverse employment action that may result from a failure to meet such quota.”

Under the bill, no employee could be required to meet any quota that interferes with meal periods or bathroom breaks, including a “reasonable time” to reach bathroom facilities.

It is an element of a campaign to lobby blue-state legislatures to set standards in law for a retail distribution giant that has proved difficult to organize and bring to collective bargaining.

On Thursday, labor was well-represented in making a case for passage in a hearing by the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, a friendly sounding board for unions trying to shape public policy.

Amazon’s giant fulfillment centers were described as dystopian workplaces where the work is repetitive, the pace is dangerously fast and the supervision is an unblinking computer program that measures TOT — time on task.

Proponents offered testimony from the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, two Teamster Union officials, an Amazon employee from Minnesota, a researcher from the National Employment Labor Project and “John Doe.”

Doe told lawmakers he worked for Amazon in Connecticut and feared retaliation if he testified by name, the same concern that he said prevented co-workers from sharing their stories. His testimony was arranged by the Teamsters.

“I have never had back issues until I worked at Amazon. And I’m not even there a year,” said Khali Jama, who testified via video from Minnesota.

Irene Tung, the labor researcher, said Amazon’s self-reported data to OSHA showed that Amazon warehouse workers in Connecticut were injured at a rate of 6.3 injuries for every 100 workers.

“This is more than double the rate of other private-sector workers in Connecticut and 15% higher than the national warehousing industry average,” Tung said.

Tung said the injury rates are attributable to how Amazon manages its workforce in Connecticut and elsewhere.

“It is Amazon’s obsession with speed, enforced through a combination of intensive electronic surveillance and frequent discipline, that has created this injury crisis for workers,” she said.

The Teamsters said they have two interests in Amazon: Their international arm is trying to organize its workers, and two locals in Connecticut are fearful that if Amazon’s standards are allowed to persist, other warehouse workers could feel similar pressures.

“Amazon is setting unreasonable standards,” said Robert Ziobrowski, the secretary treasurer of Local 1035 in South Windsor. “So it’s creating a market race to the bottom.”

Rep. Timothy Ackert, R-Coventry, the ranking House Republican on the committee, questioned the depth and breadth of the problem as presented by labor, given the sparse turnout by workers in a state where Amazon employs thousands.

Unremarked by Ackert was the absence of Amazon. The lobbyists it employs in Connecticut, the Reynolds Strategy Group, offered no testimony, and the company provided no one to rebut the union representatives.

A request by CT Mirror for comment made through Reynolds went unanswered.

Other business interests criticized the bill as unnecessary, given Connecticut’s other worker protection standards. Eric Gjede of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said the use of metrics is common and reasonable.

“It is a misperception to believe that employers are using these metrics in a punitive way or to terminate large numbers of employees,” Gjede said. “In fact, unreasonable metrics would not only result in the loss of underperforming employees but also result in turnover and reduced morale among the highest-performing employees.”

Frank Ricci of the free-market Yankee Institute said the bill is an unnecessary intrusion in a labor market where worker safety is covered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.

“Any worker may file an anonymous complaint if a policy or action is impacting worker safety, and it will be investigated by a federal agency free from the threat of retaliation,” Ricci said.

Danté Bartolomeo, commissioner of the state Department of Labor, said she was concerned that the bill puts her agency in an area in which its authority is limited.

“We have no enforcement authority over private sector employers that fall under federal OSHA’s jurisdiction,” she said.

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