As a precautionary measure to avoid legal proceedings over the company’s treatment of COVID-19 problems at a Staten Island warehouse last spring, Amazon has filed a suit against the New York State Attorney General’s Office. Amazon is requesting an order to prohibit the office of the attorney general from attempting to exert “regulatory authority over workplace safety responses to COVID-19 and allegations of retaliation against workers protesting working conditions.”
Employees at company JKF8 warehouse said that last March that when co-workers tested positive for the virus, they did not have the required protective equipment and were not told. Amazon fired many employees, including Chris Smalls, who organized a walkout in March, protesting the conditions.
Smalls was fired for breaching social distancing laws, not for protesting, the company said. At the time, New York Attorney General Letitia James called Smalls’ dismissal “disgraceful” and pressed the National Labor Relations Board for an investigation. Five U.S. Senators wrote a letter to Amazon in April criticizing their treatment of the termination of Smalls. Amazon stated at the time that the employees “were not terminated for publicly talking about working conditions,” but for breaking safety measures and protocols.
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Amazon argues in its lawsuit that James’ office “lacks the legal authority” to seek legal options such as redistribution of benefit, arguing instead that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has authority over any occupational safety cases brought under labor laws in New York. Furthermore, the case argues that the National Labor Relations Board must have jurisdiction over the claims of retaliation by Smalls and other workers, not the attorney general’s office.
The complaint argues that on March 30th, the Staten Island facility passed an inspection by the New York sheriff’s office, which found that the safety concerns of the employees were “baseless.” The company says that it performs routine temperature controls, offers staggered shifts, and facilitates social distancing at the warehouse.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, James called Amazon’s lawsuit “nothing more than a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus.” She added her office would “not be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people.”
On Friday, an official statement from Amazon said that it was not offering further comments because its complaint was quite comprehensive.
An influential Amazon vice president quit and resigned from the organization in June, alleging it of overlooking “the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power” in a scathing public blog post.