New York’s Attorney General Demands Amazon Rehire Worker Who Protested the Company’s COVID-19 Conditions

New York’s Attorney General Demands Amazon Rehire Worker Who Protested the Company’s COVID-19 Conditions
Photo: Sebastien Bozon, Getty Images

Amazon’s awful treatment of warehouse workers is in law enforcement’s crosshairs yet again. This time, New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the e-commerce giant requesting that the state’s courts mandate it take better protocols to protect its workers — and rehire a prominent warehouse worker who was fired the same day that he’d protested those conditions.

That worker, Chris Smalls, was first in the news for organising a public walkout in order to protest the company’s lack of protections for warehouse workers inside its facilities. The Staten Island warehouse, JFK8, is one of the company’s largest and serves as the company’s key pipeline to New York City proper. Of course, the warehouse’s key location and massive scale didn’t stop Amazon from putting workers in unsafe, overcrowded conditions, even as positive coronavirus cases started piling up at the facility.

The same day that he held that walkout, Amazon fired Smalls for — in the company’s words — “putting the teams at risk,” by ignoring social distancing guidelines. The company only bothered beefing up its worker protections months later, after dozens of COVID-19 cases were confirmed across multiple facilities and at least one warehouse worker was dead as a result.

But none of these (frankly half-assed) measures kept James off the company’s back since then she first went on the warpath against the company. When Smalls was first fired, she put out a statement calling Amazon “disgraceful” for the move and ordered a probe into the precautions Amazon was taking to protect its employees against the virus. Then in February of this year, James fired off a lawsuit against Amazon over its “flagrant disregard” of its worker’s health.

While the lawsuit’s still ongoing (Amazon failed to get it dismissed this past October), it sounds like the probe’s finally done — and the results don’t look good. According to a statement James issued on Tuesday, the probe uncovered evidence that “Amazon’s health and safety response violated state law by not providing reasonable and adequate protection to employees,” by failing to implement a proper COVID-19 tracing program, and following “cleaning and disinfection protocols” that weren’t up to snuff. James also alleges that the company’s notoriously invasive productivity monitoring practices didn’t permit workers to take the precautions they’d need to protect themselves against potential infections.

On top of all that, James also claims that her investigation found evidence Amazon “unlawfully fired and disciplined workers who reported their concerns about the company’s compliance with these health and safety mandates.” That includes Smalls.

The motion that was filed in New York — which still needs to be approved by a Judge in order to pass — wouldn’t only require that Smalls be reinstated. Amazon would also need to hire a court-mandated monitor to oversee some major safety overhauls in its warehouses, and that includes easing up on the ways it monitors worker productivity so that workers can take the time they need to socially distance, wash their hands, or put on a dang mask.

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment on the motion but did not receive a reply. In a statement to CNET, a spokesperson countered James’ accusations, saying that the company follows OSHA guidance and is making an effort for its warehouse workers, incurring “more than $US15 (A$21) [billion]” in costs to keep its employees and customers safe.

“While we know we aren’t perfect, we’re working hard every day to listen to the experts and keep our teams and communities safe,” she said.