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New York Sues Amazon Over COVID-19 Workplace Safety

New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Amazon on Tuesday over workplace safety concerns at two of the company's distribution and fulfillment centers in Queens and Staten Island.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Amazon on Tuesday over workplace safety concerns at two of the company's distribution and fulfillment centers in Queens and Staten Island.

Updated at 9:07 a.m. ET

New York Attorney General Letitia James suedAmazon on Tuesday, claiming the massive e-commerce company's "flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements" during the coronavirus pandemic put the lives of workers and the general public at risk.

She accused the company of shoddy contact tracing and poor cleaning — both designed to prevent the spread of the virus — at two New York facilities: a Staten Island fulfillment center and a Queens distribution center. A worker at the State Island plant warehouse died of COVID-19.

The Staten Island facility employs about 5,000 workers, and the Queens distribution center employs several hundred workers — most of whom were deemed essential during the pandemic, the filing says.

New York's lawsuit follows one filed by Amazon — in a Brooklyn federal court — trying to prevent James from filing her own. The company argues that federal labor and safety laws take precedence over New York's laws, meaning James would not have the legal authority to sue Amazon for workplace safety violations.

In response to James' suit, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement, "We care deeply about the health and safety of our employees, as demonstrated in our filing last week, and we don't believe the Attorney General's filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon's industry-leading response to the pandemic."

James began investigating Amazon in March 2020 after receiving several complaints from current and former Amazon employees.

The company "failed to follow health and safety requirements" at its massive distribution hubs in violation of New York's labor laws, James said. Under state guidelines, employers are required to provide "reasonable and adequate protection" to their employees.

Amazon received written notification of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island facility who had positive COVID-19 tests or diagnoses, of which more than 90 workers had worked in the facility within seven days of notifying Amazon.

The complaint says, "In more than 80 of these instances, Amazon failed to close any portion" of the Staten Island facility even after receiving documentation from workers of their positive coronavirus tests.

The attorney general said in her court filing, "Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprecedented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders."

The complaint notes Amazon's financial success during the pandemic — with profits of $130 billion.

James also accused Amazon of illegally retaliating against employees who publicly complained about inadequate safety measures. Last March, Amazon fired worker activist Christian Smalls after he led a protest over conditions at the Staten Island warehouse. The company said Smalls had violated a mandatory quarantine order.

Amazon also issued a final written warning to employee Derrick Palmer, another worker who demanded stronger safety protections. Palmer and two other workers sued Amazon, claiming it failed to follow guidelines set by public health agencies. The lawsuit was thrown out.

This lawsuit comes as nearly 6,000 Amazon employees at a Bessemer, Ala., warehouse are voting on whether to unionize — an effort spawned in part over workplace safety concerns during the pandemic. If the workers are successful, it would be the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the U.S.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

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Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.