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‘Oppressive and dangerous’: Amazon workers take company to court

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Amazon.com Inc. has recklessly reinstated dangerous warehouse productivity quotas despite telling a judge that it was suspending them during the pandemic, workers said in a court filing.

“Amazon has not been honest and forthcoming,” employees at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, told the judge handling their lawsuit, which claims the company’s “oppressive and dangerous” policies violated public-nuisance law and exacerbated Covid-19 hazards.

While Amazon says worker safety is its top priority, employees at several facilities in different states claim their well-being takes a back seat to quickly shipping customers’ orders.

In July, Amazon provided the court a message it had sent to employees and posted in bathrooms at the Staten Island facility, telling them they wouldn’t be disciplined for falling short of the company’s quotas for how many tasks they complete each hour. Workers were also assured that time spent on safety measures like washing their hands wouldn’t be counted against them under Amazon’s “Time Off Task” policy, which restricts the number of unproductive minutes allowed in their day.

The company also submitted a statement by a U.S. human resources director that the more permissive policy dated back to March, when due to Covid-19 the company “ceased providing productivity rate feedback to associates and imposing any discipline related to low productivity rates.” Workers said the July message was the first time they heard of any such change, and in response to it they withdrew their request for a preliminary injunction in their lawsuit.

Prime Day

But in their new filing, the plaintiffs allege that in the lead-up to “Prime Day,” Amazon’s self-created, labor-intensive annual promotional holiday that started Tuesday and ends Wednesday, the company has once again been hassling employees about productivity, and warning them that slowness could get them terminated. One Staten Island employee got “verbal coaching” from a manager for falling short, and management notified staff on a white board that “productivity feedback” was being restored, according to one worker’s account included in the filing.

Amazon acknowledged reinstating performance quotas and said workers still have adequate time to wash their hands and take other precautions.

“We have reinstated a portion of our process where a fraction of employees, less than 5% on average, may receive coaching for improvement as a result of extreme outliers in performance,” company spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said. “All of our measures continue to provide additional time for associates to practice social distancing, wash their hands and clean their work stations whenever needed.”

Prime Day has become the starting point of the holiday shopping season, which will look vastly different this year because pandemic-wary shoppers will avoid big store sales typically used to lure crowds. About half of shoppers plan to do most or all of their shopping on the web, according to a Harris Poll conducted with Bloomberg, demand that will strain Amazon’s warehouses and delivery stations.

Amazon has faced criticism as it has scrambled to remain open through the pandemic and hire enough people to meet surging demand. Its vast network of warehouses have become a lifeline for people looking to avoid stores, but workers risk getting infected and potentially bringing the disease home. Last week, the California Department of Industrial Relations fined Amazon $1,870 for failing to train workers at two southern California warehouses on how to reduce Covid-19 exposure.

Time Off

The company has said that it’s updated more than 150 of its processes to protect its employees laboring through the pandemic, including additional paid time off, cleaning, mask distribution and social distancing, and is ramping up an in-house Covid-19 testing program.

On Oct. 1, Amazon disclosed that almost 20,000 of its U.S. employees have tested positive for Covid-19, while saying their infection rate was lower than the general population’s. In legal filings, the company has denied wrongdoing, called the New York lawsuit an effort to “exploit the pandemic,” and said that under federal law the workers’ claims should be brought to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rather than the court.

Productivity quotas have been a long-running flashpoint at Amazon. In 2018, Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota organized and rallied to demand more lenience during the Ramadan fast, which that year overlapped with the lead-up to Prime Day. Back then, collective protest by U.S. Amazon employees was uncommon. This year, Covid-19 concerns have inspired a wave of walkouts and demonstrations, beginning with one in March at the Staten Island warehouse.

Plaintiff Derrick Palmer said that over the past month he and other Staten Island employees have repeatedly been notified by supervisors that production quotas were being reinstated as of October. “I said, ‘You know the pandemic is still going on?’” Palmer recalled in an interview.

“It’s like business over safety” Palmer said. “I’m just kind of sad that they would resort to this, and throw all the safety measures out the window.”

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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