By JOSEPH PISANI and MICHELLE CHAPMAN AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The New York attorney general is suing Amazon over COVID-19 safety protocols, accusing the company of being more concerned with making money than protecting its workers from getting sick.
The lawsuit, filed late Tuesday, involves two Amazon facilities in New York City that employ more than 5,000 workers. It alleges that Amazon failed to disinfect those facilities when infected workers had been present; didn’t contact workers when they were exposed to the virus; and made employees work so much that they didn’t have time to disinfect their workstations or stay socially distant.
“While Amazon and its CEO made billions during this crisis, hardworking employees were forced to endure unsafe conditions,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, who filed the lawsuit.
The suit landed just days after Amazon preemptively sued to block it from happening. In its own lawsuit filed Friday, Amazon said that unannounced inspections by the New York City sheriff’s office found its New York warehouse went above and beyond safety requirements. On Wednesday, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel added that the attorney general’s lawsuit doesn’t present an accurate picture of Amazon’s response to the virus.
The pandemic has exposed how Amazon, the country’s second-largest private employer, treats its workers who pack and ship orders. Some have protested a lack of masks and protective equipment while others have said the company isn’t forthcoming about how many people are getting sick. At a warehouse in Alabama, nearly 6,000 workers are voting on whether they want to join a union, the biggest union push in Amazon’s history. Among the requests by union organizers is for Amazon, whose profits and revenues have skyrocketed during the pandemic, to treat workers with respect and give them more breaks.
Not having enough breaks was also brought up in the lawsuit. It said that Amazon monitors workers constantly, and that those who aren’t working at all times could get in trouble or be fired. That has caused workers to rush back from breaks and not take the time to wash their hands, clean their workstations or stay socially distant, according to complaint.
Besides potentially exposing workers to the virus, the lawsuit also said that Amazon illegally retaliated against workers who spoke up about poor safety conditions in its facilities.
One of those workers, Christian Smalls, was fired by Amazon in March after he led a protest at the Staten Island warehouse. Amazon said it terminated Smalls because he violated social-distancing guidelines. But the lawsuit said Smalls never entered the facility during the protest, and the company never told him to leave the parking lot where the protest took place. It also said two human resource workers at Amazon agreed in writing that Smalls should not have been fired.
The firing has had a chilling effect on others, the lawsuit states, with Amazon workers fearful that they could be retaliated against if they make any health and safety complaints.
In the lawsuit, James asks the court to force Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc. to offer Smalls his job back and pay him for emotional distress, as well as other damages. It also asks the court to make sure Amazon is protecting the health of its workers by monitoring the company and forcing it to change its policies.