Amazon warehouse workers sue over risk of COVID-19 infection

A group of three Amazon warehouse employees who work out of the company’s New York fulfillment centers have filed a lawsuit alleging the company put them and their families at risk of COVID-19 infection, according to a report from Bloomberg. One plaintiff, Barbara Chandler, says she contracted the virus in March from a State Island warehouse, known as JFK8. Her cousin, who is also her roommate, later died after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, the report states.

The complaint accuses Amazon of fostering a work environment in which employees “were explicitly or implicitly encouraged to continue attending work and prevented from adequately washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations.” It also claims the company, through quotas and disciplinary action, led workers to avoid social distancing and other safety measures to continue hitting metrics and to keep up with surging demand.

The lawsuit also alleges that Amazon has taken a lax approach to contact tracing investigations to try and determine which employees may have come into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, and that the company has punished workers for speaking out about safety concerns.

“HR just told me that I should keep it quiet,” Chandler told The Verge back in April about her conversation with her supervisors regarding her positive test results. “That’s all they told me.”

The lawsuit, filed in New York, is not seeking damages for illness or death, Bloomberg reports. Instead, the suit is asking for a formal injunction to force Amazon to adhere to public health guidance. The three employees have also teamed up to jointly file the suit with nonprofit law firm Towards Justice, the nonprofit legal advocacy group Public, Justice, and workers rights organization Make the Road New York.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amazon has emerged during the pandemic as one of the few nationwide essential businesses that has seen a massive increase in demand for its services since shelter-in-place orders and other lockdown measures went into effect throughout the country back in March. Amazon has responded by hiring hundreds of thousands of new workers, enacting new safety measures at its warehouses, and expanding its sick leave and other worker benefits to try and offer flexibility to hourly workers. Many of Amazon’s salaried corporate employees, on the other hand, have been able to work comfortably from home.

Despite pledging to spend $4 billion to deal with the effects of COVID-19, Amazon has come under fire for not doing enough to protect its workers and for cracking down on protests against the lack of health and safety measures at its warehouses. In late April, the company ended its indefinite unpaid leave policy and began requesting workers show up for shifts unless they specifically say COVID-19 poses a risk to them or their family members.

Yet warehouse workers, many of which are low-income residents that cannot find other work during the pandemic, have been reporting to work at Amazon warehouses long before that deadline. Those workers have been voicing criticism of Amazon for months now, claiming the company has failed to tell employees when coworkers have been infected and doesn’t adequately clean facilities after reported infections to avoid any disruption in operations. At least eight Amazon workers have died from COVID-19 so far, although the company won’t give out concrete numbers and has yet to disclose how many have become sick.

In March, Amazon fired an organizer of a protest at the same Staten Island warehouse Chandler says she contracted the virus, for allegedly violating social distancing recommendations. That earned the public ire of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and widespread condemnation from activists and politicians over concerns the act was retaliatory, and leaked Amazon meeting notes later revealed high-level plans to smear the organizer in the media.

The company has since fired numerous corporate employees after those employees voiced concerns over warehouse safety; Amazon’s official justification is that these employees violated internal policies. Last month, a French court ruling shut down Amazon’s warehouses in the country for weeks after a large labor union requesting warehouse workers argued the company wasn’t doing enough to protect them on the job. The warehouse only reopened after Amazon promised new health guarantees and offered better benefits.

Earlier this month, a prominent Amazon vice president resigned from the company, accusing it in a scathing public blog post of treating warehouse workers as a “fungible units of pick-and-pack potential” and for ignoring the “the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

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