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Amazon sues to block state investigation of New York warehouse labor fight

Amazon sues to block state investigation of New York warehouse labor fight


Several workers have claimed they were fired in retaliation for protesting conditions

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Amazon has filed a lawsuit against the New York state attorney general’s office as a preemptive effort to prevent legal action over the company’s handling of COVID-19 conditions at a Staten Island warehouse last spring. Amazon is seeking an injunction preventing the attorney general’s office from trying to exercise “regulatory authority over workplace safety responses to COVID-19 and claims of retaliation against workers who protest working conditions.”

Workers at Amazon’s JKF8 warehouse said last March that they didn’t have necessary protective equipment and were not informed when co-workers tested positive for the virus. Amazon fired several workers who protested the conditions, including Chris Smalls, who organized a walkout in March.

The company said Smalls was fired for violating social distancing guidelines, not for protesting. New York Attorney General Letitia James called Smalls’ firing “disgraceful” at the time and pushed for an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board. In April, five US Senators wrote a letter to Amazon questioning its handling of Smalls’ dismissal. Amazon said at the time that the workers “were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions” but for violating safety policies.

In its complaint, Amazon argues that James’ office “lacks the legal authority” to demand legal remedies such as surrender of profit, instead claiming that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has jurisdiction over any workplace safety claims brought under New York labor laws. In addition, the lawsuit claims, the National Labor Relations Board would have authority over Smalls and other employees’ claims of retaliation, not the attorney general’s office.

The lawsuit claims the Staten Island facility passed an inspection by the sheriff’s office of New York on March 30th, which found that the workers’ safety complaints were “baseless.” The company claims it conducts regular temperature checks, provides staggered shifts, and promotes social distancing at the warehouse.

In a statement emailed to The Verge, James called Amazon’s lawsuit “nothing more than a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus.” She added her office would “not be initimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people.”

An Amazon spokesperson said Friday that since its complaint was very detailed it was not providing further comment.

During its second-quarter earnings announcement last April, Amazon pledged to spend $4 billion to deal with the impact of COVID-19, but complaints from warehouse and other Amazon workers continued; in May, a French court shut down Amazon’s warehouses in the country after labor unions said the company wasn’t doing enough to protect them from the virus. And in June, a prominent Amazon vice president resigned from the company, accusing it in a scathing public blog post of ignoring the “the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

Amazon said in its fourth-quarter earnings report earlier this month that its full-year 2020 net sales were up 38 percent to $386.1 billion.