California looks to regulate work quota algorithms

Meghan McCarty Carino Sep 14, 2021
Heard on:
HTML EMBED:
COPY
A view of Amazon's current logo. Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

California looks to regulate work quota algorithms

Meghan McCarty Carino Sep 14, 2021
Heard on:
A view of Amazon's current logo. Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Today California voters will decide the fate of Gov. Gavin Newsom. But no matter the result of the recall election, he’ll be called upon to sign or veto a bunch of new bills just passed – including one that could change how Amazon and other companies do business in warehouses. Assembly Bill 701 would regulate algorithmic work quotas in warehouses.

When Yesenia Barrera worked at an Amazon warehouse east of Los Angeles a couple years ago, she felt like her every move was tracked.

“Not only are you being, you know, told you have to meet 200 items, right … you also have to keep track of what they call ‘time off task’ or unproductive time,” she said.

Too much time off task and workers can be disciplined or potentially fired, as Barrera said she was. She’s now an organizer with the Warehouse Workers Resource Center.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re taking time prepping an item, it doesn’t matter if you’re using the restroom, it doesn’t matter if you’re getting water,” she said.

The California bill would require warehouses to be more transparent about productivity quotas, often set by complex software, and dial back the quotas if regulators find they interfere with state-mandated breaks or health and safety practices.

“It’s one of the most dangerous industries … the accident and injury rate is very high,” said Ellen Widess, a former head of Cal/OSHA. She said the pressure to speed up work in these already risky workplaces causes serious problems.

An analysis of federal OSHA data by a coalition of labor groups found Amazon warehouses had about double the rate of serious injuries as the industry average.

“Falls, musculo-skeletal injuries, heat illness problems … ” Widess said.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment and has not taken a position on the bill. It has said less than 1% of firings are related to productivity problems.

But concerns about the dehumanizing effect of algorithms at work go beyond Amazon, said Lindsey Cameron, a professor at the Wharton School.

“Management by algorithms, it’s much more tighter, more stricter form of management,” she said.

And if one of the most profitable companies on the planet is using it now, she said, it’s likely a lot more workplaces will follow.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.