Amazon has been in p.r. overdrive since in late March it fired Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker, after he organized a protest with some colleagues over what they felt were unsafe working conditions at a large fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y. Since then, founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos said the company intends to spend $4 billion on coronavirus safety (the company grew revenue in the first quarter to nearly $75 billion); national commercials are airing explaining how the company is “protecting our people,” and Amazon told Democratic senators that it’s taking “extreme” worker safety measures.
But the group of six workers in New York, who are not seeking class-action status, contend that at least one of their colleagues has died after contracting COVID-19 and that Amazon, despite its publicity efforts, is focused on productivity, not worker safety.
“This case is about Amazon’s failures to comply with New York law and state and federal public health guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic at the JFK8 facility,” the workers wrote in their complaint. “Amazon’s failures have already caused injury and death to workers and family members of workers. At least one JFK8 worker has died from COVID-19, and there are rumors of additional deaths among JFK8 workers. Workers have brought the virus home to family members, some of whom have also tragically died.”
Overall, the workers claim that at least 44 employees at the fulfillment center have confirmed cases of the virus and at least four family members of workers have contracted the virus, including three children one of the plaintiffs, Barbara Chandler. At least one of the worker family members has died of the virus.
The Staten Island fulfillment center where the group works is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and work comes in 10- to 11-hour shifts, typically four days a week. During the pandemic, an additional shift has been required, as Amazon has been inundated with orders from the public. But the workers claim that Amazon has failed to do a number of basic things to allow workers to be and feel safe, like implementing and enforcing social distancing, inadequate access to work leave; a refusal to disinfect the facility, despite multiple confirmed worker cases of the virus, and a failure to adequately and regularly disinfect high-touch surfaces at the workplace, along with a failure to give workers additional time to wash their hands or disinfect their workspaces.
“Amazon uses real-time tracking of employee activity on scanner devices that workers use to scan items, bins and packages, in order to track whether workers at JFK8 are ‘on task’ or ‘off task’ for every minute of work,” the complaint reads. “During every minute of each shift, including the two paid rest breaks, Amazon tracks — down to the minute — whether the worker is actively engaged in work based on whether they perform a task in that minute and aggregates a total time off task (‘TOT’) for each worker every day.”
If a worker is found to have 30 or 60 minutes of TOT, they get a warning. At 120 minutes, workers are “automatically” terminated.
Although the pandemic has been going on for months now in the U.S. and the economy is opening back up, the workers claim they still have not gotten more time to clean and disinfect and that colleagues are still getting sick with the virus. Just this past weekend, the workers said Amazon revealed that there were “additional” confirmed cases of the virus the warehouse.
“Although Amazon has sought to create a facade of compliance by, for example, providing fulfillment center employees with masks, the company has also relied on purposeful miscommunication with workers, sloppy contact tracing, and the culture of workplace fear it has instilled at JFK8 to ensure it can maintain productivity while reducing costs, even if that means workers come to work sick and cannot engage in proper hygiene, sanitizing, or social distancing while at work in order to stay healthy,” the complaint reads.
The workers’ claims include public nuisance, given Amazon’s alleged risk to public health; breach of duty to protect worker health and safety, and failure to timely pay promised quarantine wages to at least one worker in the suit.
They are seeking unspecified damages, a court declaration that Amazon failed to implement worker safety measures and an injunction to allow the immediate protection of workers from transmission through mandated communication, timely quarantine pay, a system to allow the disinfecting of the facility and an outside source for contact tracing efforts.
An Amazon spokeswoman reiterated the company’s spending of $4 billion “on COVID-related initiatives,” including $800 million “on safety measures like temperature checks, masks, gloves, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, extended pay and benefits options, testing, and more.” She added that employees diagnosed with the virus get two weeks paid leave.
“We are saddened by the tragic impact COVID-19 has had on communities across the globe,” she added, “including on some Amazon team members and their family and friends.”
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