California hits Amazon with fines under warehouse worker law

Photograph by Andrew Stickelman

By Jeanne Kuang for CalMatters

California workplace regulators are fining Amazon $6 million over alleged violations of a recent warehouse labor law at two of the company’s Inland Empire warehouses.

Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower’s office said today that the e-commerce giant failed to notify employees at the ONT8 warehouse in Moreno Valley and ONT9 in Redlands of any productivity quotas they were required to meet, leading workers to be disciplined without knowing why.

“If you don’t work a certain number of items per day and make sure you meet your rate you’ll get a write-up, or a verbal coaching,” Carrie Stone, an ONT8 worker, said at a press conference today. “My manager said I missed it by 1%, and I got the write-up. I didn’t even know what the target was for the day. I could lose my job if I get a certain number of write-ups.”

The company has contested the citations; the appeals are likely to take years.

Maureen Lynch Vogel, a spokesperson for Amazon, said the company does not use fixed quotas, that “individual performance is evaluated over a long period of time, in relation to how the entire site’s team is performing,” and that workers can always see how they’re performing.

Lynch Vogel said performance evaluations are also based on the number of orders at a facility, and its staffing levels, calling it “a very intricate process.”

“Critics make it sound very black-and-white, but it really isn’t at all,” she said.

But García-Brower said that evaluation system leads to “undisclosed quotas” that pressure employees to work faster. At the press conference, Stone’s coworkers described intense stress from working toward moving targets, trying not to be the slowest within their departments.

“It’s maddening,” said Nannette Plascencia, an ONT8 worker. “We are humans. Our safety is important to us, but they treat us like one of their robots.”

The citations against Amazon, the leading employer of warehouse workers and the nation’s second-largest private employer, are the state’s most prominent use of a 2021 law that aimed to curb the pace of work required in warehouses, then booming in California from the rise of online shopping.

California Labor Federation leader Lorena Gonzalez authored the law as an Assemblymember after several news investigations and advocacy reports highlighted how demands for speed and production drove a higher-than-average injury rate at some Amazon warehouses.

In 2023, the two warehouses, ONT8 and ONT9, reported 6.3 serious injuries per 100 workers and 8.9 serious injuries per 100 workers, respectively, according to federal workplace safety data analyzed by CalMatters. The average across California warehouses that year was 4.8 serious injuries, defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as workplace injuries that require employees to take time off work or receive restricted job duties.

The law doesn’t ban the use of quotas in warehouses, but requires employers to notify workers of them in writing when they are hired, and prohibits imposing quotas that are so stringent they don’t allow workers enough time to take breaks or use the bathroom.

The rules apply to warehouses employing 100 or more workers or warehousing companies employing more than 1,000 statewide. There are more than 1,100 such workplaces in California, the Labor Commissioner’s Office said in a 2022 report. In 2022, the office said it received 168 complaints of violations. The office has not yet produced details of its enforcement of the warehouse law in response to a public records request CalMatters filed in January.

Today, García-Brower said the office since 2022 has conducted sweeping investigations of California warehouses, including nearly 100 on-site visits and warnings to employers to correct quota policies. Since last fall the office has cited four other employers under the law, including a Sysco warehouse in Riverside and a Dollar General warehouse in Lebec.

“We had overwhelming compliance by many of these employers,” said García-Brower. “We estimate that approximately 4,900 workers will receive quota notices and not face discipline based on the requirements of the law and our direct investigations.”

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