New York Sues Amazon over ‘Flagrant Disregard’ for Coronavirus Safety

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos during the JFK Space Summit at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/AP Photo

The State of New York filed a lawsuit against Amazon on Tuesday, alleging that the tech giant showed a “flagrant disregard” for safety in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and that the company retaliated against its employees who complained.

New York attorney general Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Amazon, arguing that the company provided inadequate coronavirus-related safety protection for its employees in New York City, and silenced workers who expressed their concerns over the conditions, according to a report by the New York Times.

“Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers,” James argued in the the New York supreme court complaint.

The case focuses on two Amazon facilities — a warehouse on Staten Island and a delivery depot in Queens — where the tech giant is accused of failing to properly clean its buildings, as well as failing to conduct adequate contact tracing for known coronavirus cases among its employees.

“We don’t believe the attorney general’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel, adding that the company cares “deeply about the health and safety” of its workers.

The report added that Amazon had preemptively sued James in federal court in an attempt to stop the New York attorney general from bringing the charges against the company. Amazon argues that its workplace safety is a matter of federal, not state law.

Amazon also claims that its safety measures “far exceed what is required under the law,” citing a surprise inspection by the New York City Sheriff’s Office, which concluded that the company “appeared to go above and beyond the current compliance requirements.”

But in its lawsuit against Amazon, New York alleges that the company was made aware of at least 250 of its employees who had contracted the Wuhan virus, and that 90 of those had been at work the previous week.

The lawsuit adds that in response to those findings, Amazon failed to close off portions of the building and air out facilities, as required by state laws. The suit also alleges that with regards to contact tracing, Amazon relied solely on surveillance footage, rather than interview workers to see who they came in contact with.

Finally, the lawsuit argues that the company fired Amazon worker Christian Smalls after he raised safety concerns with managers, and led a public protest outside of the Staten Island facility.

Amazon, on the other hand, claims that it fired Smalls for going to the work site to protest while he was on paid quarantine leave after having been exposed to a co-worker who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The attorney general, however, said that two of Amazon’s HR employees expressed that they thought it was unfair to fire Smalls because he did not enter the building, and because Amazon did not tell him that the company’s quarantine policy prohibited him from being outside of the facility.

“Amazon employees reasonably fear that if they make legitimate health and safety complaints about Amazon’s Covid-19 response, Amazon will retaliate against them as well,” argued James in the lawsuit.

New York is calling on Amazon to change its policies, conduct training, and undergo safety monitoring, as well as offer Smalls his job back and pay for his lost wages.

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Facebook and Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, and on Instagram.

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