Amazon to pay California $500,000 for 'concealing' COVID cases among workers

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Amazon has agreed to pay $500,000 to better enforce state consumer protection laws after California's attorney general said the company has concealed COVID-19 case numbers from its workers. It's the first such action under the state's new "right to know" law meant to improve workplace safety.

In a statement from his office Monday, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta also said Amazon agreed to submit to monitoring and improve how it notifies workers and local health agencies of COVID-19 cases in its workplaces. The measures come "at a crucial time for workers as Amazon’s peak holiday season approaches," the statement said.

“As our nation continues to battle the pandemic, it is absolutely critical that businesses do their part to protect workers now — and especially during this holiday season,” Bonta said in the statement. "Californians have a right to know about potential exposures to the coronavirus to protect themselves, their families, and their communities."

Amazon has faced ongoing pressure from the attorney general's office in recent years. Bonta's office said the action comes in response to a complaint accusing the company of failures to notify warehouse workers and local health agencies of COVID-19 case numbers throughout the pandemic. It is part of a stipulated judgment, a written agreement subject to court approval. Bonta said at a news conference held outside an Amazon fulfillment center in San Francisco on Monday morning that securing court approval was "a done deal."

Among other requirements outlined Monday, Amazon must notify its tens of thousands of warehouse workers of any new COVID-19 cases within one day and disclose the exact number of cases in their workplace.

Last year, then-Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra began an investigation into whether Amazon was doing enough to protect its workers from the risk of infection amid the pandemic and sued to force the e-commerce giant to comply with outstanding investigative subpoenas requesting information including data on the number of COVID-19 infections and related deaths at some 150 Amazon facilities in California.

Amazon at the time said in a statement it was "puzzled" by the lawsuit and that it had been cooperating with the investigation for months.

The $500,000 payment announced Monday is minuscule for a corporate behemoth such as Amazon. But the amount is large compared with fines for coronavirus safety violations issued in the pandemic so far by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. For example, the agency fined Amazon $1,870 last year, as the virus was spreading, for violations at a delivery center in Hawthorne and a fulfillment center in Eastvale after employees called for an investigation into their working conditions.

In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Barbara Agrait said the settlement addresses how the company conducts mass employee notifications related to COVID-19. There is no required change to, or allegations of any problems with, the company's protocols for notifying employees who have been in direct contact with a potentially infected person, she said.

“We’re glad to have this resolved and to see that the [attorney general] found no substantive issues with the safety measures in our buildings," Agrait said in an email. Amazon has spent more than $15 billion keeping employees safe, "and we’ll keep doing that in months and years ahead.”

A Times report published in May 2020 detailed Amazon's patchy case notification system, which issued alerts seemingly at random to the company's warehouse and Whole Foods employees. Workers said they would receive notifications out of order, weeks late or not at all. A Whole Foods employee said previously that when he mentioned new alerts to his colleagues, “more than half the people you would ask would have no idea, and you were just now informing them.”

Companies' legal requirements to notify their workers about coronavirus cases in the early stretch of the pandemic were not clear. Companies were not mandated to disclose infections to workers unless they were identified as close contacts and subject to quarantine, county health authorities said.

Still, there was an avenue for workers to potentially request more information: California law requires employers to keep a record of all injuries and illnesses in a workplace, called a Log 300, that is supposed to be available to workers on request. Cal/OSHA, which has struggled to enforce COVID protections, fined an Amazon warehouse in Rialto $41,000 in May for a failure to record 217 infections among its employees from April to October 2020 in that log, among other safety violations.

Notification requirements were further clarified in September 2020, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 685, the "right to know" legislation. Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes wrote the legislation, which allows the state to track COVID-19 cases in the workplace more closely.

The law expanded the authority of the state agency regulating workplace health and safety to halt operations at sites where "imminent hazard" due to COVID-19 poses a severe risk to workers.

The law also requires providing written alerts to all employees at the worksite during the infectious period of someone who may have been exposed to the virus within one business day of receiving notice. AB 685 took effect in January, and most of its stipulated rules will expire Jan. 1, 2023.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.