Amazon Hit With New Worker-Safety Claims in New York

Just a week ago, the online retail giant had filed suit to block the investigations supporting the New York attorney general’s latest filing. 

Workers protest outside Amazon’s fulfillment center in the Staten Island, New York, on March 30, 2020, over dangerous conditions in the company’s warehouse. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) — New York Attorney General Letitia James brought a complaint Tuesday night that accuses Amazon of firing workers who blew the whistle on safety lapses as the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down.

Announcing the lawsuit on Wednesday morning, James said her office began looking into worker complaints related to the e-commerce behemoth in March 2020.  

“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,” James said in a statement

The 31-page complaint describes abuses at two Amazon facilities — a Staten Island fulfillment center called JFK8 and a Queens distribution center called DBK1. James says Amazon “repeatedly and persistently failed … to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect” its combined workforce of 5,000 Empire State employees from the spread of the virus. 

“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,” the 31-page complaint states. 

As James emphasized in her statement, Amazon was only allowed to stay open at a time when New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic because its employees were deemed essential.

“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,” James said. 

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. 

Amazon is also accused of failing to create policies that gave workers enough time to exercise virus-preventing hygiene and social distancing. 

Staten Island had the highest rates of positive Covid-19 tests in the city.

The suit alleges that Amazon “took swift retaliatory action to silence” employees who objected to the lacking safety measures in late March and early April: firing employee Christian Smalls and issuing a final written warning to employee Derrick Palmer, who each publicly protested the company’s conditions. 

Palmer was also part of a separate complaint against Amazon filed in June 2020. The JFK8 warehouse associate has appealed to the Second Circuit after New York’s Eastern District dismissed his case in November.

Amazon defended taking disciplinary action against Smalls and Palmer in a federal complaint that it filed last week in Brooklyn, saying the two employees had not complied with social distancing requirements when they attended protests over working conditions. 

With its 64-page complaint, Amazon seeks to block James’ investigation altogether, saying that, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the state attorney general doesn’t have authority to investigate the worker condition and retaliation reports. 

James, signaling that she isn’t backing down, said the fight comes down to treatment of essential workers at a company worth more than $1.6 trillion

“While Amazon and its CEO made billions during this crisis,” James said, “hardworking employees were forced to endure unsafe conditions and were retaliated against for rightfully voicing these concerns.”

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