Amazon ‘Undermines’ Workers’ Efforts to Protect Themselves From COVID-19, Staten Island Workers Claim

Ella Chochrek

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Amazon Responds, Addresses COVID-19 Response Efforts, 10:52 a.m.:

“We are saddened by the tragic impact COVID-19 has had on communities across the globe, including on some Amazon team members and their family and friends. From early March to May 1, we offered our employees unlimited time away from work, and since May 1 we have offered leave for those most vulnerable or who need to care for children or family members,” said Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty. “We also invested $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives, including over $800 million in the first half of this year on safety measures like temperature checks, masks, gloves, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, extended pay and benefits options, testing, and more. This includes two weeks paid leave for any COVID diagnosis or quarantine, and launching a $25 million fund to support our partners and contractors.”

What We Reported Earlier:

Amazon has been hit with a lawsuit by employees of its Staten Island, N.Y. facility — who claim the company’s policies failed to comply with public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, putting employees and their families at risk.

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Amazon is not a small business doing its best under uncertain guidance, and Amazon is not helpless to prevent injury and death caused by virus spread occurring within its facility,” the complaint, filed on Wednesday in U.S. district court for the Eastern District of New York, reads. “Amazon controls its workers and undermines its workers’ efforts to protect themselves and their coworkers from the virus that causes COVID-19 through a culture of workplace fear.”

In the filing, the plaintiffs allege that Amazon employees are asked to work at a “relentless” pace, with each minute of their time being tracked by an automated system. The filing argues that the company’s tracking method “discourage[s] workers from leaving their workstations to wash their hands and from taking the time to wipe down their workstations” and also “impedes social distancing.” According to the filing, a minimum of 44 workers at the Staten Island warehouse had contracted COVID-19 as of June 22, and at least one worker has died.

Further, one of the plaintiffs, Barbara Chandler, said she contracted COVID-19 while working at the warehouse. Within a month, she said, her cousin died after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Chandler claims she was eligible for and requested paid quarantine leave under New York state law — but that Amazon paid her only a portion of what she was owed and that the payment was delayed by weeks.

This is not the first time that workers in Staten Island have called attention to a purported lack of safety protections for workers at Amazon’s factories. In March, Christian Smalls, an employee at the Staten Island facility, led a protest in response to a coworker contracting the coronavirus. Shortly after, Smalls was fired. According to Amazon, Smalls was terminated after receiving “multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.” However, there have been a series of inquiries — from New York attorney general Letitia James as well as number of U.S. senators — as to whether the retailer violated whistleblower protection laws by letting Smalls go.

In addition, on May 1, a number of employees from Amazon, as well as Walmart, Target, FedEx and Instacart, either called in sick or walked out of work during their lunch break as part of a “May Day” protest. Workers who participated in the protest called for improved health and safety standards as well as hazard pay.

For its part, Amazon said in April that it has taken more than 150 steps aimed at keeping workers safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. To protect workers from contracting the virus, the e-tailer said it has staggered shifts, placed markings on its floors and added signage to remind employees to social distance. It has also increased the frequency of cleaning at all sites, including of high-touch surfaces such as elevator buttons, door and stairway handles and touch screens. In addition, the e-commerce behemoth said it has been conducting temperature checks and providing face masks and hand sanitizer to employees in warehouses in the United States and Europe as well as in its Whole Foods stores.

Plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, apart from the backpay Chandler claims she is owed. They are asking the court to declare that Amazon’s “failure to implement appropriate worker protections” constitutes both a public nuisance and a violation of the right to a safe workplace under New York law. In addition, they want the court to issue an injunction that would force Amazon to comply with public health guidelines.

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