New York Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday sued Amazon, accusing the retail giant of disregarding worker safety during the coronavirus pandemic and retaliating against employees who raised concerns—a move that came just days after she declared that "we won't be intimidated" in response to the company's preemptive lawsuit.
The state's suit (pdf), filed in the New York Supreme Court, follows an investigation launched last March and claims Amazon violated multiple labor laws as the virus struck.
The suit aims to force the company "to take all affirmative steps, including changing policies, conducting training, and undergoing monitoring, among others, to ensure that Amazon reasonably and adequately protects the lives, health, and safety of its employees." It also seeks damages for "unlawful retaliation" against two workers who sounded alarms over safety conditions.
"Throughout the historic pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly and persistently failed to comply with its obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its workers from the spread of the virus in its New York City facilities JFK8, a Staten Island fulfillment center, and DBK1, a Queens distribution center," the complaint says. "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."
We found that Amazon failed to adhere to proper cleaning and disinfection protocols, refused to notify employees when colleagues tested positive for #COVID19, and didn't allow employees to take basic precautions to protect themselves from a fatal virus.
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) February 17, 2021
"While Amazon and its CEO made billions during this crisis, hardworking employees were forced to endure unsafe conditions and were retaliated against for rightfully voicing these concerns," James said in a statement. "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."
"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," the attorney general added. "As we seek to hold Amazon accountable for its actions, my office remains dedicated to protecting New York workers from exploitation and unfair treatment in all forms."
James has repeatedly criticized Amazon for how it has handled the ongoing public health crisis, including its response to a protest last year at the Staten Island facility. Organizer Chris Smalls was fired after the demonstration. The company said his termination wasn't retaliatory but rather because he violated Covid-19 safety rules.
The new suit challenges that claim, asking the court to force Amazon to provide backpay and damages to Smalls along with an offer to be reinstated to his former position. The state further requests damages for Amazon employee Derrick Palmer, and that the company be required to rescind a final written warning that he received last year.
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.
.@amazon, we won't let corporate bullies put hardworking New Yorkers in harm's way, period.
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— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) February 17, 2021
In response to the suit, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told the New York Times that the company cares "deeply about the health and safety" of its workers and "we don't believe the attorney general's filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon's industry-leading response to the pandemic."
Amazon, as Common Dreams reported Friday, filed a preemptive federal suit in the Eastern District Court of New York following James' threats to sue the company if it didn't comply with a list of demands related to workplace safety. The lawsuit outlined steps Amazon has take to address the crisis.
As the Times noted Tuesday:
In its 64-page complaint last week, Amazon said its safety measures "far exceed what is required under the law." It cited a surprise inspection by the New York City Sheriff's Office that found Amazon "appeared to go above and beyond the current compliance requirements." The company also detailed other safety measures it had taken, including temperature checks and offering free Covid-19 testing on site.
New York, in its suit, said Amazon received written notification of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island warehouse who had Covid-19. In more than 90 of those cases, the infected employee had been at work in the previous week, yet Amazon did not close portions of the building to provide proper ventilation as the state required, the filing said.
Ms. James said that until at least late June, Amazon did not interview infected workers to determine their close contacts and instead relied on reviewing surveillance footage, which could take three days and did not cover the entire warehouse. The lack of interviews "created a very time-consuming process which did not identify close contacts in a timely fashion," the complaint said.
New York's suit was welcomed Wednesday by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is conducting a unionization drive for employees at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.
"This lawsuit is about Amazon's failure to protect its workforce in New York. But the story is the same everywhere Amazon operates—including in Bessemer, Alabama," said Appelbaum. "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. Amazon has betrayed its responsibility to its employees to provide a safe workplace; and we must never tolerate that. Amazon needs to change."