California Takes Amazon to Court for Details of Covid Response

Packages move down a conveyor system were they are directed to the proper shipping area at the new Amazon Fulfillment Center in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

(CN) — California wants a Sacramento County judge to order Amazon to divulge information as part of an ongoing investigation into the company’s Covid-19 policies and workplace conditions.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Monday the company has not responded to subpoenas about potential coronavirus outbreaks, deaths or any other health risks at its facilities and other raw data on worker safety.

“Amazon has made billions during this pandemic relying on the labor of essential workers. Their workers get the job done while putting themselves at risk,” Becerra said during a press briefing. “It’s critical to know if these workers are receiving the protections on the job that they are entitled to under the law.”

As of Monday, California has seen 1.5 million cases of Covid-19 and over 21,000 deaths. In recent weeks, a surge has pushed the state’s hospital capacity to the limit.

While the pandemic has thrown brick-and-mortar businesses into disarray, Amazon’s profits have skyrocketed as more Americans stay home and order a plethora of essentials from the e-retailing behemoth. But Becerra said Californians’ demand for goods should not be an excuse to ignore worker safety.

His office and Amazon started informal talks about the investigation this past May, but Becerra said the company has been opaque about key information related to Covid-19 and its workforce.

“Given the manifest intersection of workplace health and the public health during this pandemic, the attorney general’s concerns grew as several reports regarding working conditions for individuals working at California Amazon facilities and the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 highlighted the potential risk to Californians,” Becerra’s office says in a 13-page petition filed in Sacramento County Superior Court.

According to the filing, Amazon told Becerra’s office it had lost one of the early requests for information but would respond in the next month. But by June, Amazon had not done so.

Around the same time, Amazon told a San Francisco Superior Court that it complied with the request for information and the California AG’s office did not find any reason to shut down a facility for violations of state law, according to petition. But Becerra’s office says those statements were misleading.

The attorney general subpoenaed Amazon this past August regarding its policies on the coronavirus, which facilities report the highest rate of infections, who has been diagnosed among its workforce, where they worked and cleaning procedures at facilities. He also sought information about deaths related to Covid-19 at facilities in the Golden State.

Becerra’s office says Amazon hasn’t even been able to answer “low-hanging fruit” questions, like what is Amazon’s full legal name or any of its fictious business names used in California.

The initial request for information related to 150 Amazon facilities in California, but was narrowed to just seven by late November. Another letter seeking information went out on Dec. 7, but the company has not responded except to say it needs more time.

“The slow drip of information from Amazon is an insufficient response,” Becerra writes in the petition. “Absent the requested data, the attorney general is unable to adequately determine if Amazon is complying with applicable California law to protect its workers from Covid-19.”

An Amazon spokesperson said the tech giant is “puzzled by the attorney general’s sudden rush to court because we’ve been working cooperatively for months and their claims of noncompliance with their demands don’t line up with the facts. The bottom line is that we’re a leader in providing Covid-19 safety measures for our employees — we’ve invested billions of dollars in equipment and technology, including building on-site testing for employees and providing personal protective equipment. We encourage anyone to compare our speed and actions in this area to any other major employer.”

Becerra did not specify what prompted the investigation other than his office received credible reports and complaints about Amazon’s facilities.

“We believe it merits looking into Amazon’s practices and protocols based on information that we have received,” Becerra said.

“It’s one of those things where we will try to do this informally, cooperatively. But one way or another we’re going to get the information we need to protect Californians’ health and safety.”

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