Warehouse industry — and Amazon — targeted by Biden wage enforcers

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U.S. government minimum wage enforcers plan to focus on the warehouse and logistics industry, amplifying scrutiny of a sector criticized during the COVID-19 pandemic for its labor practices. job.

A combination of explosive growth, low wages and the widespread use of contract staff demands that greater attention be paid to how the sector treats its “essential workers”, said Jessica Looman, acting administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor Wages and Hours Division. in an interview on Tuesday.

“We want to make sure the outcome, as we continue to emerge from this pandemic, has not been an opportunity for further exploitation of workers,” Looman said. “But instead, we’ve learned a lot of lessons and this can be an opportunity to empower more workers.”

Amazon, which has enjoyed a surge in online shopping during the pandemic, has drawn much of the criticism. As the company has spent billions to help protect its facilities from COVID, employees have staged walkouts demanding greater protections. A group of workers also filed a lawsuit claiming that Amazon was endangering them and their families. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit and Amazon denied the allegations, but employees asked an appeals court to revive it.

Workers at Amazon warehouses in New York and Alabama have staged labor campaigns, as have truckers at the Port of Los Angeles, who say XPO Logistics illegally misclassified them as contractors. (XPO has denied any wrongdoing.)

In an emailed statement, Looman’s agency pledged to “vigorously enforce” a new initiative stepping up efforts to ensure warehousing and logistics workers receive the pay hours and overtime required, may take time off as required by law, and are not retaliated against for exercising their rights. The agency has conducted 70 investigations in the warehouse and logistics sector in recent months, and three-quarters of those it has resolved have revealed violations of the law, a spokesperson said.

The new initiative will focus on the misclassification of workers as independent contractors rather than employees — an issue the Biden administration has pledged to address more forcefully. “One of our biggest challenges is that there are business models designed specifically to call a worker an independent contractor to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime,” Looman said.

Applying an Obama-era concept called “strategic enforcement,” Looman’s division aims to use its limited resources to investigate and foment change in industries prone to widespread violations, rather than waiting for workers to file complaints. , then to embark on specific and punctual actions. probes.

“There’s this amazing impact we can have when workers understand their rights, employers understand their obligations, and we back it all up with a strong enforcement program,” Looman said. “It can really change the dynamics of an industry and it can empower workers.”

Working conditions in warehouses have drawn more attention during the pandemic, as many workers have risked their health and lives serving customers housed in their homes. Employees staged strikes and filed lawsuits across the country over security concerns. They also won a new law in California that requires companies to disclose their facility’s productivity quotas and prohibits employers from enforcing them in ways that prevent workers from using the bathroom.

The Wage and Hour Division announced last week that it is aiming to hire 100 new investigators, with more hires to come later this year. Looman, a former Minnesota building trades union leader, has run the agency for a year. President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the agency permanently is David Weil, who served in the same position during Barack Obama’s second term after leading a report for the division advocating the strategic enforcement approach.

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