Warehouse workers in California are one step closer to being able to pee in peace. Yesterday, the state Senate voted 26 to 11 to pass AB 701, a bill aimed squarely at Amazon and other warehousing companies that track worker productivity. The bill would prevent employers from counting health and safety law compliance—and yes, bathroom breaks—against warehouse workers’ productive time, which is increasingly governed by algorithms. The bill, which organizers call the first in the nation to address the future of algorithmic work, is now en route to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature.
Although some observers expect Newsom to sign the bill given his record on other pro-worker legislation, such as AB 5, he has thus far remained mum on AB 701. When asked about his intentions, Newsom’s office demurred, saying only, “The bill will be evaluated on its merits when it reaches the governor’s desk.” (The governor is currently fending off a recall election, which takes place September 14.)
AB 701’s passage came as welcome news to advocates like Yesenia Barerra, a former seasonal Amazon worker who traveled to Sacramento to campaign for the bill, helping stage a mock assembly line on the steps of the state capitol. Barrera staffed the company’s Rialto, California, fulfillment center for five months until her termination in 2019. When she was hired, she didn’t realize the rigidity of the productivity system, or the extent of Amazon’s camera- and barcode-based employee tracking matrix. She assumed only slackers got fired.
During one hectic shift, Barrera’s barcode scanning gun got stuck underneath some boxes on the conveyor belt. As more boxes careened down the line, she struggled to dislodge the gun. Eventually she yanked it out, but it hit her face, injuring her eye so that she momentarily saw black. Minutes later her supervisor materialized to ask why she’d stopped scanning. “I was thinking, how did she know I was not scanning? She wasn’t in the area.” At an onsite clinic, she says she was given a wet paper towel and an ibuprofen, then told to return to work. “My manager said, I saw you take the ibuprofen. You’ll be fine,” recalls Barrera. Amid her own bout of impaired vision, she became acutely aware that she was under constant surveillance by an all-seeing eye.
Not long after, Barrera was written up by a different manager for too much “Time Off Task,” Amazon’s system for tracking employee productivity. More than five minutes without scanning a barcode set the TOT clock ticking, regardless of whether that time was spent using the bathroom, wiping down a workstation, goofing off, or simply taking a breather. (In June, Amazon revised the system, averaging TOT over a longer period.) Too much TOT was grounds for a writeup, and eventually termination. “Sometimes we’d chit chat, and the girls would be like, I’m on my period, and I’m getting Time Off Task,” Barrera says. She found out she’d been terminated when she reported to her next scheduled shift and her badge wouldn’t work. (Amazon did not respond to requests for comment on Barrera’s story or anything else related to AB 701.)
AB 701 would change the game for workers like Barrera. The bill requires employers to disclose productivity quotas to workers upon hire, alongside any penalties for falling short. Trips to the bathroom don’t count as time off task, nor do legally permitted health and safety measures like stretching or sanitizing a workstation. (“Trips” is the operative word. Many warehouses are so capacious that a round-trip walk to the restroom might eat up 10 to 15 minutes. Eight if you jog, says Barrera.) It also gives workers the right to request 90 days’ worth of their own productivity figures and grants the state labor commissioner access to data on quotas and injury rates. If an employer fails to comply, an employee can sue under a state statute called the Private Attorney Generals Act.