Amazon fined for ‘knowingly putting workers at risk’ with productivity quotas

Washington state workplace safety officials have fined Amazon $60,000 for “knowingly endangering workers” at its massive Kent warehouse.

Investigators with the state Department of Labor and Industries attributed the dangers in part to Amazon’s well-known productivity quotas. Working in one of the retailer’s fulfillment centers requires a number of repetitive motions, such as bending, lifting and twisting, at “a rate so rapid that it increases the risk of injury,” the agency said in a statement.

Officials said they categorized the breach as “intentional” β€” a more serious category than typical citations β€” because they previously cited Seattle-based Amazon for similar issues at three facilities. State ergonomists assessed a dozen work processes inside the Kent plant and found “serious” hazards in 10 of them.

β€œThe company has yet to make the changes needed to improve workplace safety and has consistently denied the association between work pace and injury rates,” the agency said.

The fine may seem ridiculous for a distribution giant which had $14.3 billion in earnings last quarter, but U.S. workplace safety penalties tend to be small by status. In Washington State, the penalty for a citation like the one issued against Amazon is usually $70,000, although it can be higher in special circumstances.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. The company has the right to challenge the citation within 15 days, and has done so in the other three state-issued citations. The agency that issued the fines is a state equivalent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The company’s ruthless focus on the volume and pace of work, coupled with constant monitoring of its employees, directly endangers worker health and safety.”

– Eric Frumin, Strategic Organization Center

Washington State said Amazon has two months to submit a plan outlining how it will address security issues. The citation, which the Washington Department of Labor provided to HuffPost, offers 11 recommendations for Amazon, including using special equipment to reduce “hard lifting” and rotating workers between jobs “to reduce overloading of individual employees”.

Amazon employees are closely monitored for their work productivity as they pick, pack and ship orders to customers. The retailer has insisted its expectations are safe, but many workers and advocacy groups have complained that pressure to meet quotas under threat of layoff can lead to injuries and burnout.

The Strategic Organizing Center, a labor coalition that has analyzed Amazon’s injury data in the past, said the citation showed the company was under “further scrutiny”.

“The company’s ruthless focus on the volume and pace of work, coupled with constant monitoring of its employees, directly endangers the health and safety of workers,” said Eric Frumin, director of health and group security, in a press release.

A 2020 investigation by Reveal found that Amazon had hidden injury rates higher than those known to the public. The retailer has taken heat for its ‘task off’ policy that hits workers for time away from the workstation, and it announced last year that it would rework the metric be less punitive.

Last year, California implemented a new law targeting Amazon’s productivity quotas, prohibiting companies from setting work rates that prevent workers from using the bathroom. The bill applies to all major warehouses in the state, but its sponsor distinct the world’s largest online retailer by name when the Governor signed it.

Union supporters in Alabama have cited the pace of work as one of the reasons they want to bargain collectively with Amazon. Last year, the company defeated a labor campaign at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, but labor officials later determined that Amazon interfered in the election and broke the law. A catch-up election is currently underway.

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