Amazon Loses Attempt to Stop New York AG’s Warehouse Pandemic Probe

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A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by Amazon on Tuesday that attempted to block the New York state attorney general from pursuing claims that the company failed to protect employees from the coronavirus in its New York warehouses. 

The dismissal is a loss for the e-commerce giant, which New York Attorney General Letitia James sued in June, accusing Amazon of “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” at sites in New York. Her suit came days after Amazon preemptively sued the attorney general to stop potential legal action against the company.

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U.S. Eastern District Court Judge Brian Cogan dismissed Amazon’s suit in Brooklyn on Tuesday, reaffirming the validity of James’ lawsuit against the tech giant, Bloomberg first reported. 

Amazon argued that James was investigating the company in bad faith and that her ability to look into health matters was covered by federal law, in particular the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the National Labor Relations Act, and not under her purview, according to court documents. But the judge concluded that the state had a legitimate interest in launching an investigation into the company.

“Amazon does not explain why the attorney general’s action — even if brought in bad faith — entirely lacks a legitimate purpose,” Cogan wrote in court records. “The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that employers are complying with state labor laws, are enforcing important health safety measures and are sanctioned for illegal conduct that occurs within the state.”

Amazon said in a statement it was “disappointed” in the decision, but didn’t think it meant James would prevail in her legal action against the company.

“We’re disappointed with today’s procedural ruling, which the court made clear does not mean the attorney general’s underlying claims have merit,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. “The fact is we care deeply about the health and safety of our employees, and we’re proud of our industry-leading response to the pandemic.” 

James alleged in her suit that Amazon failed to disinfect portions of a Staten Island warehouse after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus, wrongfully fired a worker who expressed safety concerns to the company and that the warehouse had a “deficient” contact tracing procedure. She also claimed that Amazon often failed to close the portions of the facility, where staff members who had tested positive for the coronavirus worked, so the areas could be cleaned.

At the Staten Island location, known as JFK8, workers have been attempting to unionize against the corporate giant this summer. Organizers filed charges against the tech giant with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for allegedly erecting a fence to prevent union efforts and interrogating a worker about their union leanings.

One employee described their experience working during the pandemic to Commercial Observer in May, saying that they saw masks, gloves and cleaning supplies pass them on the warehouse conveyor belt, while they were not provided a mask to wear.

“To see that HR and the managers were being given masks at the factory [and] workers weren’t — it made me realize that we weren’t just replaceable. We were expendable. At that point, we were just numbers. We weren’t people,” the employee, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their job, told CO in May.

The court’s decision comes nearly a week after a NLRB official found that Amazon violated labor law by interfering in the union election in Bessemer, Ala., in April, and is recommending a do-over vote, CO reported. The multibillion-dollar company was not pleased by the judge’s decision, to say the least.

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.