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New York State sues Amazon for inadequate COVID-19 worker protections

By WK Editorial Staff

Amazon’s health and safety response allegedly violated state law as to cleaning and disinfection protocols, contact tracing, and generally permitting employees to take necessary precautions.

The State of New York is suing Amazon over its alleged failures to provide adequate health and safety measures for employees at the company’s New York facilities and its retaliatory actions against employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the complaint, by failing to maintain a safe work environment and reasonably protecting workers from the spread of COVID-19, Amazon violated New York State Labor Law. Amazon also unlawfully fired and disciplined employees who to spoke out about the e-commerce giant’s unsafe work conditions, New York Attorney General Letitia James contends.

Investigation prompted by complaints. In March 2020, following numerous complaints about the lack of precautions taken to protect employees in Amazon facilities as New York was ravaged by COVID-19, AG James opened an investigation into Amazon. The investigation was later broadened to examine whether Amazon unlawfully fired or disciplined employees who reported those safety concerns. The investigation focused on two facilities with a combined workforce of more than 5,000 individuals: JFK8, a fulfillment center on Staten Island; and DBK1, a distribution center in Queens.

At the time of these complaints, New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States; Staten Island had the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 diagnoses in New York City.

Evidence of violations. The investigation uncovered evidence showing that Amazon’s health and safety response violated state law as to cleaning and disinfection protocols, contact tracing, and generally permitting employees to take necessary precautions to protect themselves from the risk of COVID-19 infection, among other things.

Amazon was purportedly notified of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island facility who had positive COVID-19 tests or diagnoses, with more than 90 of those individuals present in the facility within seven days of notification to Amazon. However, in all but seven of these instances, Amazon failed to close any portion of the facility after learning of the positive cases, according to the AG. Amazon also implemented an inadequate COVID-19 tracing program that failed to consistently identify workers who came into close contact with employees who tested positive for COVID-19, according to the complaint. On occasions when a worker reported having close contact with a coworker with a positive COVID-19 test, Amazon purportedly dismissed the worker’s concerns and did not investigate or follow up on the reports.

Profit versus pandemic protections. “Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprecedented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders,” the complaint alleges. “Over the course of the pandemic, Amazon netted more $130 billion in profits from online sales—representing 35% growth from its pre-pandemic earnings and a 10% higher growth rate than in prior years—at the expense of its frontline workers who have experienced significant risks of COVID-19 infection while working at Amazon.”

Retaliation. The AG’s investigation also found that Amazon unlawfully fired and disciplined workers who reported their concerns about Amazon’s compliance with these health and safety mandates, including two JFK8 employees. These employees had raised concerns about Amazon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to managers, made public complaints about Amazon’s practices through the media, and submitted complaints to at least one government agency. Amazon allegedly fired one of them and issued a final written warning to the other after they made what the state characterized as valid and reasonable complaints.

Requested relief. The five-count complaint, filed in the Supreme Court of New York County, argues that Amazon’s actions violate New York labor, whistleblower protection, and anti-retaliation laws. The suit seeks broad injunctive relief and damages, including:

  • Requiring Amazon to take all affirmative steps, including changing policies, conducting training, and undergoing monitoring, to ensure that it reasonably and adequately protects the lives, health, and safety of its employees;
  • Awarding backpay, liquidated damages, emotional distress damages, and reinstatement for the JFK8 worker who was fired after speaking out;
  • Awarding liquidated damages and emotional distress damages for both JFK8 employees named in the complaint; and
  • Requiring Amazon to give up the profits it made as a result of its illegal acts.

“While Amazon and its CEO made billions during this crisis, hardworking employees were forced to endure unsafe conditions and were retaliated against for rightfully voicing these concerns,” Attorney General James said in a release. “Since the pandemic began, it is clear that Amazon has valued profit over people and has failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers. The workers who have powered this country and kept it going during the pandemic are the very workers who continue to be treated the worst. As we seek to hold Amazon accountable for its actions, my office remains dedicated to protecting New York workers from exploitation and unfair treatment in all forms.”