Amazon is facing criticism for not doing enough to fight Covid-19 in the United States. However, the Attorney General of New York, Letitia James, is doing more than criticizing, as she has filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to force the retail giant to address health and safety concerns at its warehouses with immediate effect.
AG James also asks the court to appoint a monitor to oversee Amazon’s compliance with implementing public health and safety measures at its Staten Island facility. The complex employs more than 5,000 workers.
The injunction also seeks to force Amazon to reinstate Christian Smalls in the interim. Smalls was fired when he raised concerns about Amazon’s failure to implement Covid-19 safety procedures at the beginning of the pandemic.
AG James’ legal action came just when Amazon decided to roll back its public health measures, criticized for being inadequate, in the face of the spread of a new variant of the virus.
In her statement, James said, “Amazon and its leadership banked billions of dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the crisis rages on, the health and concerns of the workers continue to be ignored. Amazon must guarantee a work environment that promotes safety, transparency, and respect for its hardworking employees, not one that further endangers them. We are filing this motion today to stop Amazon from continuing its practice of valuing profits over the health and wellbeing of its workers.”
James has been in Amazon’s hair since March 2020, when she opened a probe into the company’s practices after plenty of complaints from its employees. They were alarmed at Amazon’s indifference after many of their colleagues contracted the virus at work. New York was then the epicenter of the pandemic in the country. James extended the investigation into Amazon’s alleged response to the complaints by indiscriminately firing some vocal workers.
The investigation revealed that Amazon violated state laws by failing to set up cleaning and disinfection processes for its staff.
James’ lawsuit at the New York County State Supreme Court focuses on Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center and spells out three key points; mandating Amazon to modify its productivity monitoring process to give room for cleaning and observing social distancing while employees work, mandating Amazon to institute a process for cleaning and disinfecting the facility after discovering the presence of infected workers, and forcing Amazon to set up Covid 19 contact tracing protocols.
James’ investigation also concluded that Amazon targeted workers who registered their concerns about the company’s failure to address the pandemic by firing or disciplining them. The most prominent case involved Smalls, who publicized his complaints and even submitted them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he is legally allowed to do. He also organized an employee strike to drive the point home. Smalls got the pink slip in March 2020, and James wants him to be restored to his position at Amazon, pending the outcome of her lawsuit.
Reacting to AG James’ lawsuit, said Stuart Appelbaum, president, Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said, “Amazon has demonstrated, over and over again, that it refuses to prioritize its employees’ safety — and that is unacceptable. Amazon workers have repeatedly reported their concerns about serious issues impacting their health and safety during the pandemic. But instead of addressing these concerns, Amazon has lashed out at those workers. This must stop. No worker should be subjected to unsafe conditions at work. And no worker should be retaliated against for standing up for their rights. Amazon must change its behavior, and it must be held accountable for its egregious safety record.”
Amazon, however, criticized the AG, with spokesperson Kelly Nantel saying, “We work hard for our team every day, and the facts are that from the start of the pandemic, we acted quickly, listened to and learned from the experts, and took a comprehensive approach to the safety of COVID-19 – leaving us over $15 [billion] in costs to support our employees and customers.”
Amazon recently had a change in leadership, as founder and longtime CEO Jeff Bezos stepped down in July from his position to focus on his other endeavors, including charity and his other company, Blue Origin, which develops rockets for space tourism. He was replaced by longtime employee Andy Jassy.