Advocates say Amazon is not complying with Minnesota’s new warehouse worker safety law

By: - October 27, 2023 9:40 am

Activists shine a light spelling “Amazon workers rising” on a fulfillment center in Shakopee during a rally for higher wages and better working conditions on Dec. 8, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

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Advocates say Amazon not complying with new law 

Amazon has not complied with Minnesota’s new warehouse worker safety law, which requires large warehouse distribution centers to tell workers what productivity quotas they’re being held to and to turn over individual performance data. That’s according to Abdi Muse, executive director of the Awood Center, a non-profit that supports primarily East African workers pushing for higher wages and better working conditions.  

“Based on what workers are telling us, Amazon is not complying,” Muse said.  

Maureen Lynch Vogel, an Amazon spokesperson, said that’s false: “The site is fully complying with the new law, and employees can access their performance metrics at any one of nine kiosks across the site, or by asking their manager. Any assertion otherwise is simply untrue. In fact, employees have had access to this information before the law was even passed.”

In regards to telling workers their productivity quotas, Lynch Vogel said Amazon doesn’t have fixed quotas but that performance is assessed “on safe and achievable expectations and takes into account time and tenure, peer performance, and adherence to safe work practices. We’re in compliance with the law.”

The authors of the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, which took effect Aug. 1, say it’s the strongest Amazon warehouse worker protection bill in the nation. In addition to the transparency requirements around productivity data, the law bars employers from setting quotas that require workers to skip restroom or other breaks. 

The law also directs the state Department of Labor and Industry to investigate companies if injury rates are 30% higher than the average rate for comparable workplaces. 

Amazon monitors workers’ every minute “off task” and labor advocates say the company uses opaque productivity quotas to push workers to a dangerous pace while disciplining those who can’t keep up. 

The law’s lead authors, Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, are in Manchester, England to speak at the first Summit to Make Amazon Pay, hosted by UNI Global Union and Progressive International. The two day conference brings together workers, activists and lawmakers from around the world to develop strategies on improving working conditions for Amazon workers and reining in the retail behemoth’s market power. 

On Wednesday, researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development released what they say is the largest survey of Amazon workers to date, with responses from 1,484 workers across 451 facilities in 42 states. 

Sixty-nine percent of Amazon warehouse workers surveyed said they took unpaid time off to recover from pain or exhaustion caused by the job. Just over half of respondents who had been at the company for over three years said they had been injured on the job. 

An Amazon spokesperson criticized the survey’s methods of finding workers through targeted online ads and said its injury rates have improved.

Mayo Clinic employees say they have terrible insurance

Mayo Clinic employees say working at one of the world’s most elite medical institutions hasn’t spared them from the worst of America’s health care system: monthslong waits to get appointments, hours-long phone calls with insurance representatives and out-of-pocket costs reaching into the thousands of dollars. 

The Reformer spoke with 10 current and former employees who said they paid thousands of dollars for mental health care or had bills sent to collections by Mayo or turned to a free clinic for lack of in-network doctors. 

“I am terrified of having to go into the hospital,” said one remote employee, who said she paid more than $1,200 dollars for a routine physical and bloodwork. 

Mayo Clinic nurse and state Sen. Liz Boldon, DFL-Rochester, shared her experience on Wednesday in a tweet: “Since last Friday, I’ve spent over 6 hrs making a dozen phone-calls trying to get claims for my son covered by his (2!) insurance plans. It really shouldn’t be this difficult.” 

Doctors and executives at Mayo don’t face the same issues as other employees because their benefits package shields them from high costs and limited network options. They can be reimbursed up to $10,000 per year for health care costs like out-of-network coinsurance costs and dental appointments. 

Mayo Clinic, which is self-insured, said it offers a “robust benefits program” that covers the majority of its employees’ costs at a rate of approximately 75%. The plan’s administrator, Medica, said Mayo is responsible for any complaints about coverage because it sets the benefits and premiums for its employee health plans. 

Mayo Clinic workers aren’t unique. In a survey released this week, 43% of people with employer health plans said they had difficulty paying for health care. Mayo workers say they expected better coverage from a non-profit institution that generates over $16 billion a year in revenue. 

UAW reaches historic tentative agreement with Ford 

The United Auto Workers union won a 25% wage increase over 4.5 years plus cost-of-living raises in a tentative agreement with Ford after 41 days on strike. The union told its members they could begin returning to work before voting on whether to ratify. 

Under the agreement, Ford workers will see more in straight general wage increases over the next 4.5 years than they’ve seen in the previous 22 years combined, according to the union. The lowest paid workers will see raises of 150% over the life of the agreement and workers will be able to strike over plant closures, a first for the union. The agreement also eliminated what the union called “divisive” pay tiers at certain parts operations. 

The union didn’t get everything it was asking for like a 32-hour workweek or defined benefit pensions for all workers. 

The agreement puts added pressure on General Motors and Stellantis as thousands of their union auto workers continue striking, including about 130 workers at parts distribution facilities in Plymouth and Hudson, Wisc.

Allina primary care doctors union is certified 

Federal labor regulators certified the union election of more than 550 Allina Health doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners at 61 primary and urgent care clinics last Friday. The group is the largest private sector doctors’ union in the country. 

The election could prove a watershed moment in the increasingly consolidated health care industry, as doctors look to unions to claw back power over their practices usurped in recent years by sprawling health conglomerates.

Allina Health did not challenge the election, whereas the nonprofit health system is disputing  the election by over 100 doctors at its Mercy Hospital, which has campuses in Coon Rapids and Fridley. 

Worker misclassification task force 

Attorney General Keith Ellison’s task force on worker misclassification met for the second time on Wednesday to develop recommendations for lawmakers and state agencies on how to address a widespread practice that robs workers of social safety net benefits like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and minimum wage and overtime protections. 

Misclassifying workers as independent contractors also shifts more costs on to taxpayers. For example, full-time Uber and Lyft drivers easily qualify for publicly subsidized health insurance because they can write off their mileage as a business expense at 65 cents per mile. 

In construction, misclassifying workers as independent contractors goes hand-in-hand with wage theft and allows contractors to offer lower bids than companies who pay overtime wages and payroll taxes. 

Minnesota has one of the toughest wage theft laws in the country, making it a felony in excess of $1,000. It’s only been charged a handful of times since the law was passed in 2019, however. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office is trying to inform county attorneys about the law. 

“We would like to see more counties know that they have criminal authority in wage theft that they didn’t used to have. That’s an educational challenge that we have to meet,” Ellison said. 

Many small dairy farm deaths are never investigated

Federal labor regulators never investigated a majority of the 12 worker deaths on small dairy farms in Wisconsin since 2009, according to reporting by ProPublica’s Maryam Jameel and Melissa Sanchez.  

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is barred from enforcing safety laws on farms with fewer than 11 workers. But there is an exception giving OSHA jurisdiction if the farms have employer-provided housing known as a “temporary labor camp.” OSHA has exerted its power to investigate worker injuries and deaths under this exception, albeit inconsistently. 

“Lawyers and advocates for dairy workers say they don’t even bother calling OSHA when workers are killed or injured on smaller farms because they’re so used to the agency citing the small farms exemption,” Jameel and Sanchez write. 

Like other physically grueling industries, dairy farms rely on a workforce of undocumented immigrants who often silently endure dangerous working conditions for fear of deportation. 

Metro Transit’s longest serving bus driver

Racket’s Jay Boller interviewed Metro Transit’s longest-serving bus driver, 47-year veteran Melanie Benson. Benson got behind the wheel shortly after graduating from Macalester College. 

“I took the bus everywhere I went,” she said. “I appreciated it, and I considered it kind of my savior.”

“If you have money, driving a car or a truck or whatever will get you where you’re going faster. If you don’t have money, you can still get there — it’ll just take you a little longer on a bus. And it’s just a social atmosphere. You’re not sitting alone in a car staring out the windshield. You’re with people. You’re seeing people you’ve known for years, or maybe someone you just met. It has always felt better, to me, to feel that social character.” 

One of Benson’s riders commented on Boller’s article with a story about how she once handled a couple unruly drunk passengers: “One of the guys had likely been in a fight and had bloody hands. He started playing with my hair and telling everyone to get off the bus and leave us alone. Melanie was driving, pulled over and came back with a sledgehammer in hand and kicked them off the bus. I was so relieved.” 

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.