Amazon Hit With Suit by New York AG Over Pandemic Safety

Amazon has been sued by the New York State Attorney General over the safety of its facilities, particularly in Staten Island and Queens, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The state court complaint, which New York Attorney General Letitia James disclosed Wednesday, outlined her office’s investigation of Amazon since March, which had scrutinized the retailer’s productivity demands on workers during the pandemic, how the company communicated to employees about COVID-19 cases at its facilities, and how its cleaning procedures were implemented in practice. 

The state AG’s complaint targeted the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island and the DBK1 distribution center in Queens, two facilities that have more than 5,000 workers in total. 

The New York AG’s suit claimed the retailer had failed to properly implement closures at those facilities in response to infected workers, had not instituted proper contact-tracing protocols to inform workers if they had come in contact with coworkers found to have COVID-19, and that the company even retaliated against workers who reported safety concerns. 

“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,” James said in her statement Wednesday. “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.” 

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The state AG’s suit follows Amazon’s own suit in New York federal court last week, in which the tech giant had argued that it has taken extraordinary measures to keep its workers safe during the pandemic. The company emphasized it had invested $10 billion in workplace safety measures, offering more than 100 million masks at its facilities, 34 million gloves and making cleaning supplies available, including hand sanitizers and wipes. The retailer was also “building scalable capacity” for COVID-19 tests at its facilities, the suit said. 

“In short, Amazon has been a global leader in workplace safety during this unprecedented pandemic, following the guidance and advice of public health experts and organizations early on and investing in protecting the health of its associates,” Amazon said in its suit filed Feb. 12. 

On Wednesday, an Amazon representative reiterated the company’s message that it has prioritized its employees’ safety. 

“We care deeply about the health and safety of our employees, as demonstrated in our filing last week, and we don’t believe the attorney general’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic,” Amazon representative Kelly Nantel said in a statement. 

James’ suit sought to focus on the reality of working conditions at the Amazon facilities in question, despite the company’s official steps. 

For instance, Amazon had said in its suit that it has “modified production speeds and performance requirements,” but the New York AG’s suit claimed that even though Amazon said in March of last year that it was halting disciplining workers for productivity-related issues, it did not clearly communicate that change in policy until July. Since then, the company reinstated its usual productivity requirements from October, according to James’ suit. 

Amazon’s high productivity requirements don’t realistically allow workers the necessary time to consistently take the appropriate cleanliness precautions, the New York AG’s suit alleged. 

“Employees also know that if they take additional time to engage in hygiene and sanitation practices during the work day, it will adversely impact their productivity rates,” the New York AG’s complaint said. “Thus, they reasonably anticipate that they may be subject to automatically generated discipline or other adverse consequences.” 

The New York AG’s lawsuit also took aim at Amazon’s reported retaliation against employees who have publicly complained about safety conditions at its facilities during the pandemic, highlighting some of the more high-profile terminations of the past year, including of whistleblower Chris Smalls, who was fired after he led a protest at the JFK8 Staten Island warehouse.

But Amazon claimed in its complaint last week that Smalls was terminated “for severe health and safety violations,” and has previously said in statements to the press that he was let go after violating social distancing protocols by coming into contact with a worker infected by COVID-19.

Amazon has also pushed back against claims of inadequate contact tracing efforts, saying the company notifies employees by text message whenever there is a COVID-19 diagnosis of a worker at their facility. 

The New York AG’s suit has alleged that Amazon told workers who tested positive for COVID-19 not to let their coworkers know and that until June of last year, Amazon was not questioning infected workers to learn who had come into contact with them. 

“Furthermore, pursuant to Amazon’s official nationwide policy, Amazon only undertook even this limited contact-tracing process only upon receiving written documentation of a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 test result or medical diagnosis, or receiving phone or email confirmation directly from the employee’s health care provider,” the New York AG’s suit said. 

“Amazon did not undertake contact tracing while an employee was awaiting test results, if an employee did not provide written documentation of test results or documentation, or if an employee was advised by a medical professional to quarantine based on close contact with an infected individual,” according to the suit. 

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