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New York sues Amazon alleging ‘flagrant disregard’ of health standards at warehouses

Attorney General accuses Amazon of failing to adequately protect warehouse workers from coronavirus

New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Amazon on Tuesday, alleging the e-commerce giant failed to provide adequate protection for its warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic. (Kathy Willens/AP)
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New York Attorney General Letitia James accused Amazon of “repeatedly and persistently” failing to provide adequate protection to its warehouse workers in the state, suing the e-commerce giant Tuesday.

The company’s “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” at facilities in Queens and Staten Island “threatened serious illness and grave harm” to workers, James alleged in the suit filed in New York Supreme Court. And the threat continues to pose a danger to public health.

The suit also alleges Amazon disregarded crucial workplace safety measures such as social distancing requirements and providing employees time to properly maintain sanitary work stations.

“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 suit alleges.

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Amazon rebutted James’s claims and pointed to its own legal filing in a New York federal court last week, which argued that James lacks the legal authority to regulate workplace safety issues.

“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,” spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in an emailed statement.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon faced fierce criticism at the start of the pandemic that it hadn’t done enough to keep workers safe. Its warehouses were quickly overwhelmed with orders from customers who preferred to shop from home rather than risk infection at local stores.

That crush of business put enormous strain on Amazon’s warehouses, where social distancing can be challenging. The company said in the fall that nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive, or had been presumed positive, for the coronavirus since the dawn of the pandemic. It hasn’t updated that figure since.

Meanwhile, nearly 6,000 employees at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting to determine whether they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. That fight, fueled in part by workers’ pandemic concerns, could lead to Amazon’s first unionized warehouse in the United States.

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The union seized on James’s suit, claiming the issues workers face in New York are endemic throughout Amazon’s operations.

“Amazon needs to do better for all its employees to keep them safe. It’s not that Amazon cannot afford to, but that Amazon doesn’t want to," RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement.

Amazon’s filing in New York last week didn’t deter James. She called it at the time “a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hard-working employees from a deadly virus.”

Her filing Tuesday amped up claims against the company. In addition to the allegations that Amazon hasn’t complied with workplace safety standards, James also accused the company of retaliating against employees who raised concerns. She cited the firing in April of Staten Island worker Christian Smalls, as well as the company’s written warning to another employee, Derrick Palmer, both of whom sounded alarms about working conditions.

“Amazon’s actions against these visible critics who advocated for Amazon to fully comply with legal health requirements sent a chilling message to other Amazon employees,” the suit alleges.

Amazon’s warehouse workers sound alarms about coronavirus spread

Amazon has said Smalls’s dismissal was related to his ignoring a request from his manager to stay home after contact with a worker who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The suit seeks to find Amazon in violation of the state’s labor laws, enjoin it from engaging in practices that endanger workers in New York, and award back pay as well as damages to Smalls and damages to Palmer.