Amazon Awaits Appeal from Higher Court as France Warehouses Remain Shut to Avoid Hefty Fine

Update Tuesday, April 21, 3:55 p.m. ET: Amazon has asked employees of its French warehouses to stay home through Saturday, April 25. It will review its decision on Friday, Aprul 24, after the Court of Versailles hears its appeal.

What we initially reported:

Amazon is going to the Court of Versailles.

The Seattle-based company is seeking for more clarity regarding the court’s definition of “essential goods” after it was ordered on April 14 to limit its deliveries to essential goods, including food, self-care and medical products.  In a courtroom today, a French judge bumped the e-tailer’s appeal up to higher court, where it will now be heard on April 24. Failure to comply with the order would require Amazon to pay a hefty penalty of 1 million euros ($1.09 million) per day of delay. To avoid this fine, the company has temporarily shut its six French warehouses, which have about 10,000 workers.

“Our fulfilment center operations are complex and varied, and with the punitive 1 million euro per incident fines imposed by the initial court judgement, the risk of accidentally shipping non-essential items was too high, which is why we temporarily suspended our fulfilment center operations,” an Amazon representative told FN. “Since the start of this unprecedented global crisis, we have been clear that nothing is more important than the safety of our employees.”

In light of the revised judicial calendar, Amazon told FN it will “reassess the situation” of its distribution centers, which had initially been slated to remain shut through Wednesday. The company says it will consult with staff representatives prior to extending closures.

Unions had called for the total shutdown of Amazon’s activities in France, expressing worries over purported challenges in maintaining proper social distancing amid heightened product demand. By restricting Amazon’s deliveries, the court noted that officials would be able to better examine whether the online powerhouse is taking adequate safety precautions to protect its associates.

Similar concerns over a purported lack of protections for employees have also been raised on Amazon’s home turf of the United States: In late March, 15 workers at the company’s Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse participated in a demonstration that sought to call out Amazon’s workplace conditions after an employee at the facility tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Christian Smalls, who led the employee walkout, was fired shortly afterward, but Amazon attributed his termination to his receipt of “multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.” (Smalls, Amazon said, had come into contact with a worker who tested positive for COVID-19 and was told to stay home with pay for 14 days.)

Further, five U.S. senators — including former Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — penned a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos earlier this month inquiring about Smalls’ firing. They also expressed concerns about short supplies of personal protective equipment following reports that the retailer had masks and gloves for employees only in “limited quantities.”

An Amazon spokesperson told FN last week, “We have enough supply of masks for everyone in our operations network and grocery stores to last a few weeks and continue to procure more. There is a mask shortage in the world right now, so naturally we are being deliberate in our daily distributions.”

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