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Court should intervene in Amazon's COVID-19 response, NY attorney general says

Letitia James asks a New York court to enforce disinfection, distancing and contact tracing practices at a Staten Island warehouse.

Amazon warehouse workers and labor activists have been demanding better COVID safety measures at the company's facilities.
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Amazon's COVID-19 health and safety measures at a Staten Island warehouse drew criticism on Tuesday from New York's attorney general, who asked a New York court to require improved contract tracing, cleaning, and disinfection and social distancing protocols. James also asked the court to require Amazon to reinstate a former warehouse worker who complained about COVID protocols early in the pandemic. 

The request was part of a larger case filed in February seeking to address safety concerns at the facility, which the attorney general says employs about 5,000 people. James also asked the court to install a monitor to ensure the enforcement of improved health and safety measures.

"Amazon must guarantee a work environment that promotes safety, transparency, and respect for its hardworking employees, not one that further endangers them," James said in a statement. "We are filing this motion today to stop Amazon from continuing its practice of valuing profits over the health and wellbeing of its workers." 

A group of Amazon employees and labor organizers are currently seeking to form a union at the warehouse. The worker whom James asked the court to reinstate, Christian Smalls, said he was involved in organizing a walkout in protest of Amazon's COVID safety measures when he was fired in March 2020. James has been critical of the firing since it became public, calling it "immoral and inhumane." Amazon said at the time that Smalls was fired for coming to the warehouse premises during the protest after being asked to quarantine.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel criticized James for claiming a need for emergency action from the court nine months after filing the initial lawsuit. "We're working hard every day for our team, and the facts are that we moved fast from the onset of the pandemic, listened to and learned from the experts, and have taken a comprehensive approach to COVID-19 safety -- incurring more than $15 [billion] in costs to support our employees and customers."

James' request came the same day a union-affiliated organization released a report accusing Amazon of under-reporting COVID infection numbers to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The report also says warehouse workers said in a poll that Amazon is inconsistent with measures like contact tracing and informing co-workers of potential exposure. 

Nantel said the report was misleading, adding that Amazon follows OSHA guidance for reporting work-related COVID infections.

"OSHA has acknowledged that assessing whether a COVID case was caused through exposure in the workplace vs. in the community is difficult," she said. "We also communicate regularly with our employees and local health authorities. 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."