Amazon faces new legal scrutiny over its employees’ health and safety

The authorities are watching.
The authorities are watching.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Mohatt
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Letitia James, attorney general of the state of New York, had some harsh words for Amazon in an April 22 letter to the company.

“While we continue to investigate, the information so far available to us raises concerns that Amazon’s health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” the letter read according to NPR, which obtained a copy.

It’s a serious allegation that could carry penalties such as fines if Amazon were found in violation. It also shows that Amazon remains under heightened scrutiny in the pandemic, even with the many efforts the company says it has made to ensure workers and customers are protected. While OSHA is a federal law, states can prosecute serious violations.

State attorneys general in the US have separately raised other issues with Amazon as well. A group of 15 called on Amazon to extend paid sick and family leave during the crisis. Another group of 33 warned Amazon and other companies to crack down on price gouging on their online marketplaces.

But the most intense pressure on the company has focused on its measures to keep workers safe. The new coronavirus has already infected workers at more than 50 Amazon warehouses in just the US. Some employees have complained they’re at risk, whether due to a lack of protective equipment or the inability to adhere to social-distancing guidelines in the crowded spaces. The issue has previously led to protests of the conditions including walkouts, and not just in the US.

In the UK, workers at a warehouse in Darlington staged a walkout earlier this month. In France Amazon wound up shutting down its warehouses after a legal battle with French unions that resulted in a court ruling Amazon could only deliver food, medical items, and hygiene products until it resolved its safety issues. Amazon recently lost its appeal of the decision. The turmoil, meanwhile, has threatened to disrupt its operations at a moment when it needs them running smoothly.

Rachael Lighty, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that ensuring the health and safety of employees has been the company’s top concern. “We made over 150 process updates—from enhanced cleaning and social distancing measures to new efforts like disinfectant spraying,” she wrote. “We distributed personal protective gear, such as masks for our employees, and implemented disinfectant spraying and temperature checks across our operations worldwide.”

But tension has only grown after Amazon fired employees involved in publicly criticizing the company. Among them was Christian Smalls, a worker at its Staten Island, New York, facility, who helped stage a demonstration in March after becoming worried colleagues were getting sick. Amazon says it supports employees’ right to protest and didn’t fire Smalls for organizing the demonstration but because he repeatedly violated social-distancing guidelines and put others at risk.

But these actions have riled even Amazon’s corporate employees and brought still more scrutiny. In the new letter to Amazon, New York’s James—who had previously called Smalls’s firing “disgraceful”—said her office is concerned Amazon may have discharged him to “silence his complaints and send a threatening message to other employees that they should also keep quiet about any health and safety concerns.” It added that it’s investigating “other cases of potential illegal retaliation.”