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Protecting big tech workers

 October 1, 2021 at 11:00 AM PDT

Speaker 1: (00:01)

This week on round table, the physical cost of next day delivery, California says it's time to set some boundaries to protect those who make it happen. The draining work, the force, the state to act the San Diego lawmaker emerging as a big tech watchdog and the growing footprint for Amazon here and Indiana let's dive into it. I'm Christina Kim and KPBS Roundtable starts now

Speaker 2: (00:24)


Speaker 1: (00:34)

For some of us, our relationship with Amazon begins and ends with a website and the boxes that end up on our doorstep. But there's a lot of workers including right here in San Diego, home to California's largest fulfillment center who make that magic happen 24 7, but that magic can have a high price and workers are paying for it with their bodies.

Speaker 3: (00:55)

I know that we can lead with technology that positively advances humanity, and we can do so in a way that does not negatively affect workers, health, and safety. But unfortunately that is not happening today in many of our warehouses to make next day delivery possible. Businesses have forced workers to work faster and reach their own bodies in the process

Speaker 1: (01:21)

That state Senator Josh Becker, whose district includes parts of Silicon valley presenting AB 7 0 1 for a vote last month, it passed easily and was signed into law last week, further cementing its author, San Diego's Lorena Gonzalez as one of the leaders in reigning in big tech. We'll have a little bit more on her in a bit, but let's dive into this new law that will take effect January 1st, 2022 will. Evans has been covering worker injuries at Amazon since last year for reveal from the center for investigative reporting based in the bay area. And he joins us now. Hey, well, Hey, okay, well, so can you just break down exactly what protections AB 7 0 1 outlines

Speaker 4: (02:03)

Th this bill takes the work quotas that warehouse workers are held to, and it regulates them. It says that you can't hold a warehouse worker to a work quota that would prevent you from going to the bathroom or doing your job safely, uh, following health and safety laws. And that seems pretty basic, but this is exactly what was happening in a lot of the warehouses workers saying they couldn't go to the bathroom or they were getting hurt because they were being driven so hard. And to go so fast, this says, if you feel that a quota is forcing you to do that, you can object to it. You could complain to the state labor commissioner. You could even Sue over it

Speaker 1: (02:42)

To be clear. This law still allows warehouses to establish production metrics. It just won't allow restroom breaks or other basic health precautions to be held against workers in meeting those quotas. Is that what I'm hearing?

Speaker 4: (02:55)

Yeah. You can definitely have work photos for sure. You're not to push workers so hard that they can't go to the bathroom or they can't, uh, they can't do their job safely. You know, you can have a production quota, you just can't do it to the point where workers are violating safety laws or not going to the bathroom.

Speaker 1: (03:14)

As I've mentioned, you've been reporting on these quotas and high rates of worker injuries since last year. How do you think this new law is going to impact the daily lives of the workers? You've been talking to workers like Candice Dixon?

Speaker 4: (03:26)

I think it will be really interesting to see how this plays out. I mean, I think even the, the Bill's author doesn't exactly know how it's going to play out. It gives workers this lever for effecting their own working conditions where they can object to a quota, but who are they going to, who's going to, and then, and then, then what happens? How will it affect workers like Candice Dixon? I mean, there's a, there's a lot of people like her who have been seriously injured and are stear still seriously injured and are in pain. And it's honestly not going to do anything for them. Uh, you know, I talked to Candice and she said, she hopes that this will help prevent other injuries. We'll have to see how, how it actually plays out. And the, the Bill's author says that this will be the first step. So there might be more regulations down the road.

Speaker 1: (04:16)

Yeah. I was really taken by Candace's story. I mean, the expectation to lift and scan objects, no matter their size, every 11 seconds. I mean, that gives us some insight into what these injuries are, but if you could just elaborate for me, what exactly are the types of injuries that people working at Amazon and other warehouses are getting and what makes the rate of injury so high at Amazon warehouses?

Speaker 4: (04:41)

Um, the, the injuries are often these kind of musculoskeletal injuries like back injuries, shoulder, knee, arm, wrist injuries from either repetitive strain or from sometimes people are going so fast. They, they take shortcuts. Something will fall on their head. There's concussions. There's sometimes you smash your foot or your hand, but it often comes out of how fast people are going. The people have to hit targets, sometimes 400 items an hour for a 10 and for a 10 hour shift, you know, and, and there are periods of mandatory overtime and it doesn't allow for the body to, to rest and to, to take that kind of impact over and over and over again. Um, and so people's bodies end up kind of wearing down. There was one shift of particularly heavy items and it just ruined her back for life. It's not true for everyone. Some people can, can do it and are fine. And, you know, Amazon refers to its industrial athletes. And some people say, you know, it's not a big deal, but it, it doesn't work for everyone. And it ends up injuring a very high number of people.

Speaker 1: (05:55)

So of course the other side of this is how Amazon has responded. You say that back-breaking production quotas are a key feature of Amazon's business model. Do you have a sense of how AB 7 0 1 will change Amazon's work infrastructure or even what the company has said since this law was signed?

Speaker 4: (06:13)

Amazon has been careful not to talk about the law specifically. It's been opposed by business groups, the chamber of commerce retailers association, they have opposed this strongly saying that it would, if that it will slow things down, it will add to supply chain issues. They'll make things more expensive for consumers. There'll be burdensome to businesses. Will it slow things down? I mean, that's a question. Can Amazon adjust their quotas so that workers can do the job safely? I think that's that they can, but, uh, will they need more workers to get as many packages out the door as they're doing now without pushing them to those extreme rates? I maybe, maybe there needs to be more workers or will they see it as like a cost of doing business to like, just see what happens in terms of how this is in forest and, and lawsuits, and just, you know, continue on as usual. That's, that's also a possibility,

Speaker 1: (07:08)

A lot of big questions for the future ahead will, what are you keeping your eye on as the year moves forward,

Speaker 4: (07:13)

You saw the union campaign in Alabama fail, but I think there is still a lot of interest in what workers can do and whether they, they will continue to try to unionize whether they'll organize in other ways, Amazon keeps growing bigger and hiring more and more people. So I think the, the story of how Amazon is affecting labor in general and the future of work, and what workers will do about that going forward is just going to be a continuing important issue that, that everyone should be paying attention to.

Speaker 1: (07:47)

I've been talking with will Evans reporter for reveal from the center for investigative reporting. Thank you so much. Well,

Speaker 4: (07:52)

Thanks so much for having me

Speaker 5: (07:54)

This pandemic. We worried about workers and we know that people's impatience their desire to get whatever they need right now. And for free doesn't come at no cost. The problem is the cost is being borne by workers. We don't even see it's the workers in the warehouse at Amazon in particular, where they're three times more likely to suffer an injury than in any other job.

Speaker 1: (08:23)

That's the voice of Lorena Gonzalez pushing for her bill AB 7 0 1 back in April with warehouse workers in Los Angeles. The San Diego based lawmaker has elevated her profile in recent years as the leading voice against big tech. At least when it comes to workers' rights. In 2019, Gonzalez drafted AB five, which ensured gay workers were treated like employees. It was eventually overturned by one of the most expensive ballot measures in state history with prop 22, when companies like Uber and Lyft successfully fought her attempt to reform how the gig economy classifies its workers. In spite of that, setback, Gonzalez has continued to champion workers' rights in a state that's dominated by big tech companies, intent on redefining work. And in many ways it's what our local politician has become known for. Lee. John Greco recently wrote a profile on Gonzales's rising role as big Tex watchdog. And she joins me now for more Hailey,

Speaker 6: (09:19)

Thanks so much for having me. We

Speaker 1: (09:20)

Tend to think of Lorena Gonzalez as our local politician, but as your article suggests, she's drawing both appeal and notoriety across the state. What drew you to want to profile her? And how do you think she's being perceived outside of San Diego? Yeah,

Speaker 6: (09:36)

I don't think she's become a household name outside of California the way other progressives have on the national stage. But I definitely think that she's one to a watch and that's because she's in California and she's attacking big tech and we've already seen the states set the pace for federal policies surrounding that industry. Things like the consumer privacy act that was passed in 2018, not to mention these are state battles, she's waging, but they're state battles happening in the fifth largest economy in the world. So I think when California makes a lot, especially around tech Washington tends to take notice. And then of course, journalists are going to take notice as well. Google

Speaker 1: (10:21)

Was somewhat lucrative when it really started blossoming in the middle part of the last decade. But over time workers say they're taking home less and less pay tips are a big part of that income. What's the latest bill Gonzalez is pushing for in order to address this.

Speaker 6: (10:36)

Yeah, so she actually has two bills addressing this issue and the stem in part from a lawsuit last year that alleged that door dash was stealing driver's tips. So the one that governor Newsome just signed this week is her bill AB 10 0 3. And that says that an employer can actually go to jail if they steal more than $950 in wages from an employee, her other bill AB 2 8, 6 was recently passed by both chambers. And that one does a couple of things. It makes it illegal for third-party apps to charge a customer, a higher price than the restaurant has set, but also makes it illegal for the platforms to keep tips. And then lastly, a real sticking point for this legislation was the fee cap. So the original bill had a cap on the delivery fees, much like the cap that San Francisco passed this summer that ultimately was taken out of the final bill, which now just allows restaurants to provide customers an itemized breakdown of the fees charged by delivery ups.

Speaker 1: (11:40)

As I mentioned, Gonzalez is also the author of AB five, which Uber and Lyft, you know, they backed prop 22 and 2020 voters approved it and essentially overturned AB five. But the courts recently got involved. Where does that stand

Speaker 6: (11:53)

Now? Yeah. So, uh, that's done, it seems like it's ping pong game between the courts. So prop 22, as you mentioned, was approved by voters last November, and that essentially carved app based drivers out of AB five so that they would still be classified as independent contractors instead of employees who could receive benefits, then labor got a major victory. This August when a California superior court judge ruled that prop 22 was unconstitutional. Now about a week ago, uh, protect app based drivers and services, which is this coalition backed by Uber Lyft, Instacart door dash. They appealed that decision. So we might be in for a long legal battle here,

Speaker 1: (12:39)

Pushback from tech companies goes beyond the courtroom though. Gonzalez has also gotten into it on Twitter, dropping an F bomb at Elon Musk, which he responded to. Is that just part of politics now? Or does it tell us something about Gonzales has political brand?

Speaker 6: (12:55)

No, I don't think it's all politics, but I definitely think this is an attitude we're seeing with populous on both sides of the aisle. So whether it's those on the right, like Donald Trump or AOC on the left, I think it's trendy now to speak to the frustration. A lot of working class Americans are feeling at this moment and, you know, I should add that Gonzalez, doesn't just drop F bombs on social media. She also talks about things like packing cold spaghetti for her kid's lunch. And I think both of those kinds of comments get to this idea that you're supposed to be quote unquote, authentic on social media, rather than be this kind of traditional two dimensional pomade politician that we've seen in the past. Right.

Speaker 1: (13:40)

Really human, which you talk about in your story, right. That seems to be appealing to younger state politicians who are kind of enjoying these interactions and are also participating in them themselves. Uh, as you were doing the story, what else did you learn from her colleagues and how she's viewed by others in Sacramento? Yeah,

Speaker 6: (13:56)

So I spoke with Alex Lee. He's a 26 year old assemblyman from San Jose and he's also co-authored legislation with Gonzales. And I asked him about criticism from the California retailers association that Gonzalez didn't come to the table with them when it came to that recent warehouse legislation. And he basically told me that unlike some other politicians who really pride themselves as deal-makers and compromisers Gonzalez just wants to get through legislation for working people. So I think that tells you a little bit about the way she approaches the industry. I'd say overall, she can be a bit of a polarizing figure in Sacramento during the debate over 85, Republican Jeff Stone made a comment about labor leaders and the quote black widow of public policy. And, you know, whether that was a comment made directly at Gonzales or indirectly, uh, she's really embraced it. And I think that speaks again to this theme. She has, whether it's on social media or dealing with industry in person, she doesn't really care about what people say. And in fact, she's going to use that criticism to her advantage.

Speaker 1: (15:10)

You know, as we've been talking about Gonzalez is really carving out this niche in recent years as the lawmaker that's taking on the gig economy and also standing up for worker rights. Is there anyone else out there to keep an eye on or any other proposals that aim to make things more equitable for gig workers?

Speaker 6: (15:26)

Well, you know, one piece of legislation I covered recently, that's moving to the governor's desk and it doesn't focus so much on the gig economy as overall worker protections in California is the silence no more act. And that was authored by state Senator Connie Leyva. And what it does is prevent the use of non-disparagement and non-disclosure clauses as part of the severance agreement, following any workplace discrimination and harassment. And that builds on a previous law that Leyva passed the standard act and that one covered sexual harassment, but it didn't address racism in the workplace. And what's interesting about the silence. No more act is that it came out of Silicon valley, but you know, it's really going to have a broader appeal and it's really going to have a broader impact. So again, not specific to gig workers, but certainly something to watch. As far as labor laws go.

Speaker 1: (16:23)

I've been talking with Lee, John Greco, a freelancer Thank you so much, Lee,

Speaker 6: (16:27)

Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1: (16:34)

As we mentioned, these jobs pay around $15 an hour, which barely covers the rent in a place like San Diego. This week. I've been reporting on the end of the state's pandemic era. Eviction ban Friday, October 1st has been a date that brings anxiety for some 700,000 Californians behind on rent, but there's still help available. And it varies based on where you live in San Diego county right I have a story that breaks down a lot of that helpful information for those wondering what to do next. I also talked with KPBS midday edition about this on Monday, find the midday edition podcasts and give it a listen.

Speaker 1: (17:13)

Last week, we got into what it's like to live a cross border lifestyle, and what we're talking about today, Amazon and the gig economy intersects with that experience. Amazon now has a major presence on both sides of the border with a major warehouse open in OTI Mesa, and now in Tijuana where a new warehouse sits in a largely underdeveloped neighborhood home to families that don't all have access to running water or electricity. God knows Moreno recently visited the area and took some incredible photos for a story in voice of San Diego. He's here to tell us more about the people trying to wrap their heads around this big new neighbor. Hello, Carlos.

Speaker 7: (17:51)

Hi. Hi Christina. How are you? Thank you for having me on

Speaker 1: (17:54)

The neighborhood that we're talking about is an area called [inaudible], which really translates to new hope. The photos you capture, show a little of it, mostly the stark contrast between humble homes and that shiny new Amazon warehouse. Can you just set the scene for our listeners a little bit? What is it like there? What is it when you're standing there and photographing this neighborhood

Speaker 7: (18:17)

Pretty stark? It's pretty apparent that this gigantic looming center is pretty much, uh, shadowing these shack like homes that surround this, uh, very sporadic, uh, neighborhood. Uh, like you said, none of us spend onsite and it's, it's pretty much a, uh, I, I it's, it feels out of place pretty much because I mean, even though this area facilitates, uh, in this east side of Tijuana facilitates, uh, in an industrial area of different factories and different companies that are already set up in the area or around it, the contrast and the comparisons, you know, they're, they're not hard to pass by, especially on the highway, when you're driving over there, you, you see the different,

Speaker 1: (19:03)

Do you know why Amazon chose this place to put a fulfillment center in?

Speaker 7: (19:07)

Like I said, it's an area that has different factories and it's pretty industrial. It's the east side of the city. And pretty much Amazon is not, the only company has set up here. Uh, there are at least five other industrial facilities nearby the new distribution center, pretty much aims to offer same day delivery since Quana and next to deliveries in cities like [inaudible], which is in Baja, California, Amazon had sent him a prior release press release that the distribution center is geared towards only the Mexican market. It's also a response to Argentina Mercado Libra, which is a very similar Amazon-like company that offers pretty much all goods. You can get e-commerce goods online and it's very popular with Mexicans and non America. And it's, Amazon's response to it. Even though Amazon already has 11 distribution centers in Mexico.

Speaker 1: (19:59)

In your story, you profile several people that live there and are watching their community change. What did you hear from the people that you talk to about Amazon being there? It kind of seems like there's a mixed response. Yes.

Speaker 7: (20:10)

It was pretty much a, a cautious optimism. Um, some are happy that they're there. Some of them are benefiting from, from it. Some are hopeful. They can get jobs there while others are very wary about being removed. Like you said, it's, it's, it's a mixed feeling of, will this be good for the neighborhood? Will this be good for us? Or will this be like other multinational companies that move into third world countries,

Speaker 1: (20:35)

Right? You bring up a big, a big point there. So there's this concern, right? That with this development might come displacement. I know you photographed Beto at Anthemis a man in his sixties who worked and lived that farm area that you're talking about that was sold in order for Amazon to be able to build at center. You know, what is he doing now? And can you tell me more about these fears of displacement? You know, where can people really go?

Speaker 7: (20:59)

Pedro pretty much has retired, uh, after he, he was told to pretty much thank you. You know, here's $2,000 for, for your troubles and, you know, to move. And that was about it. And, uh, he said he was lucky. He was one of the few that got any money to begin with. But what he's doing now is he's a cheesemaker, he has a, he's renting a place near his family, which is in the same neighborhood in queerness Bonanza. So he's pretty much saving money and pretty much trying to get a place of its own, but it seems pretty difficult at least from what he tells me. And even though he's pretty much a stone wall away from, from Amazon's facility, literally you could see the wall, uh, the security wall and the camera's right, right above, um, his, his rental home,

Speaker 1: (21:46)

You know, one image from your story that really arrested me was this picture of, you know, this very small, very humble home. It seemed to be assembled together with plywood and found lumber and you see it in the forefront. And then just right there is just this huge Amazon new building, you know, top of the line materials, but they are just butter stepped next to each other. Yes, yes. You know what I I'm talking about?

Speaker 7: (22:12)

Yes. I remember one of the Beto was one of the people who told me, it's like, oh, you know, it's great that, you know, you're, you're covering this, you're talking about what's happening here. But also there's other neighborhoods that are being affected by Amazon's arrival here. And, uh, that got my curiosity. So I went around the prop, the gigantic property that Amazon is still constructing. I mean, they have this, well, they got this, this warehouse that's already built. That's going to facilitate, like I said, these cities in Mexico, but, um, there are still construction sites there and they're still constructing. Um, so there might be two to three different sites that are going to be built there as part of the gigantic Amazon center. What you see there in that image. And then the different consequential images you see there is that that specific neighborhood has only roughly five little houses left. Um, and a lot of these people have worries that they will be displaced. They were pretty much of, most of the people I spoke to, they were the ones that were the most worried because they were seeing the erosion of their neighborhood and Amazon pretty much encroaching in that area that they bought. But nonetheless are still in that area.

Speaker 1: (23:19)

Why capture this? You know, I know that as a photographer and as a journalist, you know, once you put something out into the world, you don't really get to decide how people react to it, but what did you hope people would take away from your story and from these photos?

Speaker 7: (23:34)

Well, that's a good question. Um, that's something I, I I've been thinking about a lot ever since I've started working on the story and then after it got published and what people were commenting online about it, and just in general, the interest of it, I'm hoping that people kind of just maybe pay attention to, you know, what's happening in these type of, um, situations where you have these multinational companies moving in. And yeah, some of these companies have good intentions and maybe for some, they do help. And I hope it's the case for Amazon and for the people that will be taking these jobs. But in the end, it's pretty much just kind of to show. There is a, there is a responsibility that these companies should share with the community, and it should be something that people are aware it's happening because it's very easy and I'm guilty of it.

Speaker 7: (24:27)

I, most of us are where we go online. We, we, we click on our, you know, we want to allow lamp right, or a chair for our office. And we, and we forget that, um, there's people that work in these environments, um, some, for very little pay some long, long hours. And it's, I guess it's important for people to realize where that labor is coming from, how it's affecting other people's lives. These areas aren't very much seen by, by tourists or even by locals. There are so many people I know who've told me they've never even passed by this place, or even looked at it. It's, it's such a place where you can drive by, by it and not even notice it. But I guess now it will be very noticeable with, with this gigantic Amazon building popping out of, um, these homes

Speaker 1: (25:14)

I've been talking with. God knows Moreno has photography for the story can be seen at voices, San Diego. Thank you,

Speaker 7: (25:19)

Carlos. Thank you very much.

Speaker 1: (25:21)

Thank you for tuning into this week's edition of the KBS round table. And thank you to my guests will Evans from reveal Lee, John Greco, and godless Marino from voice of San Diego. Before we go a special shout out to our web team here at KPBS, they've worked so hard in recent weeks, giving KPBS dot orgy, a makeover. It's a cleaner look and it makes it easier to explore all the content we have to offer. And if you missed any part of our show, you can listen any time on the KVS round table podcast. I'm Christina Kim, join us next week on the round table.

In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Amazon workers move containers to delivery trucks at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariz.
Ross D. Franklin / AP
In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Amazon workers move containers to delivery trucks at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariz.
KPBS race and equity reporter Cristina Kim hosts a discussion on a newly signed law aimed at improving conditions for warehouse workers for Amazon and others.

A new California law will require major warehouses operated by Amazon and others to strike a balance between meeting production demands and worker well-being. Also, the growing role of San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez as a gig economy watchdog, and Amazon's growing presence in San Diego and Tijuana. Guests include reporters Will Allen (Reveal), Leigh Giangreco (dot.LA), and photographer Carlos Moreno (Voice of San Diego).