New York AG sues Amazon over handling of COVID-19

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New York Attorney General Letitia James has sued Amazon for worker mistreatment at two New York facilities. The company failed to protect employees adequately from the COVID-19 virus, instead prioritizing productivity and profit, the complaint says.

James' lawsuit focuses on JFK8, a fulfillment center in Staten Island, and DBK1, a Queens distribution center.

"Amazon’s flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements has threatened serious illness and grave harm to the thousands of workers in these facilities and poses a continued substantial and specific danger to the public health," read the document filed in the New York Supreme Court.

The complaint alleged Amazon focused on productivity at the expense of worker hygiene, sanitation, and social distancing. The company examines data from the digital scanners that workers use to assess their performance and may issue "automatic discipline" for those workers, according to the complaint.

This limited the time workers had to sanitize appropriately in an attempt to maintain the company-imposed mandatory “line speeds,” the complaint added.

Amazon said it’d suspended this procedure, but the complaint claimed it didn't inform employees of the change for months. The complaint also stated Amazon had resumed the practice.

According to the court filing, the e-commerce giant also failed to comply with state requirements for cleaning and disinfecting its facilities after workers were found to be infected. Amazon also allegedly failed to identify and notify those workers' potential contacts unless the worker presented a test result or a doctor's note, which was particularly difficult early in the pandemic when tests were scarce. Amazon instead relied on surveillance camera footage to track contacts, which James said introduced unnecessary delays.

The company was hostile to workers who complained, firing Christian Smalls, a manager who complained about conditions at its facilities, and issuing a final written warning to another, said James. She added this had a chilling effect on workers' complaints.

The court filing accused Amazon of breaking the New York Department of Health’s guidelines for wholesale trade companies. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on March 18 closing non-essential businesses, but essential industries, including warehousing and fulfillment centers like Amazon's, were allowed to stay open.

In May, Cuomo issued another executive order reopening businesses but insisting they follow Department of Health guidelines for specific industries.

In June, the Department of Health issued specific guidelines for wholesale trade industries that followed CDC guidance issued in February. It required companies to close where infected workers had visited within seven days, ventilate the area, and wait at least 24 hours before cleaning. Businesses also had to log those who had contact with the infected person in the workplace and notify them and the state health department.

Amazon had at least 90 cases of infected workers who’d been at JFK8 within the seven days but never closed the facility and only performed "partial and inadequate closings" of immediately adjacent workstations seven times, James alleges. It also failed to observe 6-foot social distancing rules.

Amazon focused on profit at the expense of worker care at the two New York facilities, said the complaint. It said that the company earned approximately $28.5 million in extra profits from the two centers throughout the pandemic.

James has asked the court to force Amazon to implement better health and safety policies for workers and to pay emotional distress damages to the workers it fired or disciplined. The complaint said Amazon should also issue back wages to Smalls and restore his job.

Amazon, which has abandoned a planned headquarters in Queens, preemptively sued Attorney General James in federal court last week in an attempt to prevent her from issuing the lawsuit. Its suit claimed that workplace safety was a federal issue rather than a state one.

The e-commerce company has been reportedly fighting attempts to unionize at its Alabama facility. If workers there vote for collective action, it would be the first union formed by Amazon workers. Google and Alphabet workers agreed to unionize in January.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.