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New York State is suing Amazon for alleged worker safety failures during COVID-19

New York State is suing Amazon for alleged worker safety failures during COVID-19


The suit claims Amazon failed to keep workers safe and retaliated against those who complained

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Amazon in the state’s supreme court on Tuesday, claiming the company failed to protect its workers early on in the COVID-19 pandemic and also retaliated against employees who voiced concerns over what they felt were inadequate safety measures.

The news, reported yesterday by The New York Times, follows Amazon’s decision earlier this month to preemptively sue the New York AG’s office in an effort to prevent James from bringing charges, doing so by trying to have jurisdiction over its workplace safety measures in New York be deemed a federal issue not within the purview of the state AG.

“Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers,” James argued in the 31-page complaint. “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.”

The complaint cites a number of alleged offenses stemming from Amazon’s treatment of New York City workers at a warehouse facility on Staten Island and a delivery facility in Queens. Those include Amazon’s alleged failure to notify workers in a timely manner of when they had been in contact with employees who tested positive for the coronavirus, Amazon’s alleged inadequate and “legally deficient” contact tracing measures to contain outbreaks, and Amazon’s alleged failure to close down and sanitize parts of its facilities that housed employees who tested positive.

“Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers.”

The complaint also singles out Amazon’s alleged retaliation against workers, including fired Staten Island warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who vocally criticized the company’s working conditions and helped organized a major March protest against its handling of the coronavirus. “Amazon employees reasonably fear that if they make legitimate health and safety complaints about Amazon’s Covid-19 response, Amazon will retaliate against them as well,” James wrote.

Smalls made national headlines last year when, after helping organize the worker protest, he was fired. Amazon said it was because Smalls violated company policy by attending a protest outside the Staten Island facility he worked after he was told to stay home on paid leave because he had been exposed to a co-worker who tested positive.

However, leaked meeting notes released last spring by Vice News showed high-level company executives discussing ways to smear Smalls and use him to discredit growing labor movements seeking to unionize Amazon’s various warehouse and Whole Foods workforces. Smalls is now suing Amazon for racial discrimination.

The New York AG suit is asking that Amazon change its policies to better protect worker safety, create new training and safety monitoring protocols, and pay lost wages and damages to James as well as offering to rehire him.

In Amazon’s 64-page lawsuit it filed against the AG’s office earlier this month, the company argued it went above and beyond what it was required to do by state law. Amazon said in a statement to The New York Times that it cared “deeply about the health and safety” of its warehouse employees and that it intended to fight the lawsuit. “We don’t believe the attorney general’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic,” an Amazon spokesperson said.