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Amazon will change practices, pay $500k for hiding Covid-19 outbreaks from workers

The e-commerce giant will start informing employees about potential Covid-19 exposures in the workplace under a stipulated judgment with California's Department of Justice.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As part of its penance for concealing Covid-19 outbreaks from warehouse workers and state health officials, Amazon has agreed to start notifying employees about Covid-19 exposures at work, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Monday in announcing a first of its kind agreement that the state hopes will send a message to other employers.

“Throughout the pandemic, Amazon left its workers in the dark about the prevalence of Covid-19 in the workplace and failed to share critical and legally-required information. As the company enjoyed booming and historic sales with its stock price doubling, Amazon failed to notify warehouse workers and local health agencies of Covid-19 case numbers, often leaving them unable to effectively track the spread of the virus,” Bonta said at a press conference held outside an Amazon facility in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood.

The e-commerce giant will be required to issue timely exposure notifications to warehouse workers within one day. It has also agreed to pay $500,000, submit to state monitoring by Bonta’s office, and inform local health agencies of Covid-19 cases within 48 hours.

“We’re glad to have this resolved and to see that the Attorney General found no substantive issues with the safety measures in our buildings," Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said in an emailed statement. "We’ve worked hard from the beginning of the pandemic to keep our employees safe and deliver for our customers— incurring more than $15 billion in costs to date—and we’ll keep doing that in months and years ahead.”

The stipulated judgment stems from a complaint Bonta filed against Amazon on Friday in Sacramento state court, and ensures that the e-commerce giant complies with Assembly Bill 685, a state law requiring businesses to inform workers and local public health departments about Covid-19 exposures, and enact workplace sanitation plans.

“No corporation is too big to follow the law. Today’s judgment requires Amazon to update its Covid-19 notification polices in line with the law and take specific actions to protect workers,” Bonta said.

Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, said the bill was a response to businesses hiding workplace outbreaks from employees.

“During the height of Covid-19 when we knew how contagious this was, we were seeing many of our essential workers contracting this disease at work and taking it home to their families. Numbers of employees at the same companies were exhibiting symptoms, testing positive for Covid-19, being hospitalized and dying,” said Reyes, who carried the bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last September. “We realized that although we thought there was a moral obligation, and although we expected employers to do the right thing and to notify their employees when they had been exposed to someone who tested positive, the truth was there was no specific law that required this.”

But some companies “either found loopholes or chose not to comply with the law,” Reyes said.

While $500,000 sounds like a paltry amount for a company that made a reported $386 billion in revenue last year, Bonta said the money should not eclipse the worker safety aspect of the agreement.

“This is massive in terms of its impact on workers, workers who up until now have been left in the dark. The focus is really on the changed practice going forward,” he said. “Amazon has a lot of money, we know that. The importance is we have some investment into consumer protection actions going forward. But most importantly, it’s the message this sends to all businesses in the state of California.”

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