James sues Amazon for failing to protect workers during COVID-19

Letitia James
In this Aug. 6, 2020 file photo, New York State Attorney General Letitia James takes a question at a news conference in New York.
Associated Press/Kathy Willens, file

New York Attorney General, Letitia James on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Amazon over its failure to provide adequate health and safety measures for employees at the company’s New York facilities and Amazon’s retaliatory actions against multiple employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In failing to maintain a safe work environment by reasonably protecting workers from the spread of COVID-19, James said Amazon violated New York State Labor Law.

In addition, she said Amazon unlawfully fired and disciplined employees who objected to Amazon’s unsafe work conditions.

“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.

“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,” she added. “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.

“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,” the attorney general continued.

James opened an investigation into Amazon in March 2020 following numerous complaints about the lack of precautions taken to protect employees in Amazon facilities as New York was ravaged by COVID-19.

The investigation was later broadened to examine whether Amazon unlawfully fired or disciplined employees who reported these safety concerns.

Amazon boxes are seen stacked for delivery in the Manhattan borough of New York City, Jan. 29, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File

In particular, the investigation focused on two facilities with a combined workforce of more than 5,000 individuals — JFK8, a fulfillment center on Staten Island, and DBK1, a distribution center in Queens.

At the time of these complaints, New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and Staten Island had the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 diagnoses in New York City.

The Attorney General’s investigation uncovered evidence showing that Amazon’s health and safety response violated state law with respect to cleaning and disinfection protocols, contact tracing and generally permitting employees to take necessary precautions to protect themselves from the risk of COVID-19 infection, among other things.

For example, James said Amazon was notified of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island facility who had positive COVID-19 tests or diagnoses, with more than 90 of those individuals present in the facility within seven days of notification to Amazon.

However, in all but seven of these instances, the New York Attorney General said Amazon failed to close any portion of the facility after learning of the positive cases.

Additionally, she said Amazon implemented an inadequate COVID-19 tracing program that “failed to consistently identify workers who came into close contact with employees who tested positive for COVID-19.”

On occasions, when a worker reported having close contact with a coworker with a positive COVID-19 test, James said Amazon dismissed the worker’s concerns and did not investigate or follow up on the reports.

She said the evidence gathered through the investigation also demonstrates that “Amazon unlawfully fired and disciplined workers who reported their concerns about Amazon’s compliance with these health and safety mandates,” including Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer.

James said Smalls and Palmer both raised concerns about Amazon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to Amazon managers, made public complaints about Amazon’s practices through the media and submitted complaints to at least one government agency.

“Amazon fired Smalls and issued Palmer a final written warning after they made these valid and reasonable complaints,” James said.

The lawsuit, filed in the Supreme Court of New York County, argues that Amazon’s actions are in violation of New York labor, whistleblower protection and anti-retaliation laws.

The suit seeks broad injunctive relief and damages, including: Requiring Amazon 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.”

The lawsuit also seeks backpay, liquidated damages, emotional distress damages and reinstatement for former employee Smalls.

In addition, the suit seeks the awarding of liquidated damages and emotional distress damages for employee Palmer, and requires Amazon to “give up the profits it made as a result of its illegal acts.”

More from Around NYC