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Amazon loses federal fight to block New York pandemic safety investigation

Amazon had tried to get ahead of New York’s attorney general’s state lawsuit by filing a federal complaint of its own.

BROOKLYN (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed Amazon’s lawsuit seeking to block New York Attorney General Letitia James’s investigation into its worker safety protocols during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to James, Amazon failed to institute reasonable safety measures at two facilities — a Staten Island fulfillment center called JFK8 and a Queens distribution center called DBK1 — that have a combined workforce of 5,000 employees. 

“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,” reads James’ 31-page complaint.

In addition to ignoring its duty to follow cleaning and disinfecting requirements, according to the complaint, Amazon would fail to identify or notify employees potentially exposed to the virus through their contact with co-workers in the same facilities who wound up positive for the virus that causes Covid-19. 

After workers complained and protested the pandemic conditions one was fired and another was issued a final written warning. James calls that action retaliatory, while Amazon argues the disciplinary measures were the result of the in-person protests thwarting social distancing rules. 

The state matter took a trip to federal court but landed back in New York County in April and remains pending. 

Separate from the ongoing state matter was the now-dismissed complaint in the Eastern District of New York, which Amazon — aware of James’ investigation — filed less than a week before James did. 

The company had argued that the state was preempted by federal worker safety laws under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan, a George W. Bush appointee, disagreed. 

“Here, the Attorney General’s state action seeks to enforce state labor laws and health and safety regulations, and to sanction an employer for allegedly illegal conduct that occurred within the state,” he wrote in the 11-page order

“In other words, the general nature of the Attorney General’s state case is the enforcement of the state’s laws, particularly those aimed at protecting the health and safety of its citizens. Such an action goes to a fundamental interest of the state as a sovereign," he added.

State court is an adequate forum to review Amazon’s federal claims, Cogan ruled, noting that Amazon has already asserted the same preemption arguments in a pending motion to dismiss the state proceeding. 

The company failed to explain why it can’t seek the injunctive relief in wants through a counterclaim in the existing state court proceeding, the judge wrote. 

“We applaud this decision and look forward to continuing our litigation against Amazon in state court and protecting our workers,” said Morgan Rubin, spokeswoman for Attorney General James’ office, in an email to Courthouse News. 

Representatives from Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

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