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Senator takes aim at Amazon’s labor practices with federal quota bill

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Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on Thursday introduced new legislation to regulate the use of productivity quotas by warehouse employers like Amazon, a tool critics have said encourages employees to work faster and without frequent breaks, putting them at higher risk of injury.

The bill, called the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, is the first attempt to police warehouse quotas at the federal level, after similar laws have passed in states including California, New York, Washington and Minnesota.

The legislation would require employers to be more transparent about workplace quotas and potential disciplinary consequences, and provide workers with at least two business days’ notice of any changes to quotas or workplace surveillance.

It also seeks to ban companies from using “harmful quotas” like “time off task,” an oft-scrutinized metric used by Amazon to measure time a worker isn’t scanning items while on the clock. Employees have argued the time off task policy makes working conditions more strenuous and that it’s used as a tool to surveil workers.

“Amazon has perfected a punishing quota system that pushes workers to and beyond their physical limits,” Markey, who is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, said at a press conference announcing the bill.

“They set requirements for how many packages workers have to scan without telling workers what those requirements are. Then they fire workers who fail to win their impossible game,” Markey added.

Amazon’s use of quotas in its warehouse and delivery operations has been a frequent subject of debate alongside broader scrutiny of the safety of its frontline employees. The company, which is the second-largest private employer in the U.S., has previously said it doesn’t use fixed quotas, but that it relies on “performance expectations” that factor in multiple indicators, such as how certain teams at a site are performing. It’s also disputed allegations that employees don’t get enough breaks.

Amazon has a Time Logged In policy that “assesses whether employees are actually working while they’re logged in at their station,” Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly said. Kelly added that employees can check their performance any time and that managers provide coaching if a worker is struggling.

Yet some Amazon warehouse workers say the company’s productivity quotas are opaque and often determined by algorithms, and that they face disciplinary action or termination for failing to meet them. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year issued citations against Amazon for exposing employees to safety hazards, and pointed to its pace of work as a driving factor.

OSHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating conditions at several warehouses, while the U.S. Department of Justice is examining whether Amazon underreports injuries. Amazon has said it disagrees with the DOJ and OSHA’s allegations.

Wendy Taylor, a packer at an Amazon warehouse in Missouri, said during Markey’s press conference on Thursday that she and others are “fighting for quota transparency.” Taylor said last March she “tripped and fell flat on my face” over a pallet, but was ordered back to work by onsite medical staff. Her doctor later found she’d torn her meniscus during the fall.

Taylor blamed Amazon’s “inhumane work rates” for the injury, and added, “Amazon workers provide same-day shipping, but we can’t even get the same-day care we deserve.”

WATCH: Amazon’s worker safety hazards come under fire from regulators and the DOJ

Why OSHA is investigating Amazon for 'failing to keep workers safe'

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