What Other Retailers Can Learn From Amazon’s COVID-19 Legal Imbroglio

New York’s attorney general is suing Amazon.com Inc. over its alleged shortfalls in handling the COVID-19 health crisis within its workforce.

In a complaint filed on Tuesday in the state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Attorney General Letitia James claimed that the online behemoth “repeatedly and persistently failed” to protect its employees as the coronavirus outbreak spread across the state as well as Amazon’s New York facilities. She also accused the retailer of retaliating against workers who voiced concerns over what they perceived were inadequate safety measures.

“Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers,” she wrote. “Amazon’s flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements has threatened serious illness and grave harm to the thousands of workers in these facilities and poses a continued substantial and specific danger to the public health.”

According to James, Amazon did not notify workers in a timely manner about when they had come in close contact with other workers who tested positive for COVID-19. She added that the retailer used “legally deficient” contact tracing methods and neither closed down nor sanitized areas within its facilities where coronavirus-positive employees had been working.

The complaint noted several alleged incidents at Amazon’s fulfillment center on Staten Island and delivery station in Queens. Last June, the Seattle-based company was hit with a lawsuit by employees in the Staten Island facility. At the time, the workers argued that the retailer’s automated time-tracking system “discourage[d] workers from leaving their workstations to wash their hands and from taking the time to wipe down their workstations” and “impede[d] social distancing.” The filing also showed that at least 44 workers at the Staten Island warehouse had contracted COVID-19, and at least one worker had died.

What’s more, James pointed out Amazon’s alleged response to employees who have publicly criticized working conditions at its plants — including the firing of Staten Island warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who organized a protest about purportedly unsafe practices at the warehouse in March and ultimately filed a class action lawsuit against Amazon in mid-November.

“Amazon employees reasonably fear that if they make legitimate health and safety complaints about Amazon’s COVID-19 response, Amazon will retaliate against them as well,” the attorney general added.

In October, Amazon made headlines with its announcement that nearly 20,000 employees — out of 1,372,000 U.S.-based Amazon and Whole Foods Market workers — had either tested positive or been presumed positive for the novel coronavirus. It said that its positive case rate was 42% lower than rates in the general population.

“We care deeply about the health and safety of our employees,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel, who referenced the company’s own preemptive lawsuit, which was filed four days ago in Brooklyn federal court against James. “We don’t believe the attorney general’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic.”

Since the outbreak touched down in the U.S., more than 27.76 million people have been infected by COVID-19. Deaths have surpassed 488,300. As they learn to navigate business operations amid the pandemic, many retailers are also facing to challenges as they aim to avoid liabilities as a result of employees or customers potentially getting sickened by the virus. Adding to their legal concerns is the issue of whether to enforce mandates for COVID-19 vaccinations. For example, employees forced by their employers to receive the vaccination might be covered by workers’ compensation statues should they suffer adverse reactions post-inoculation. Meanwhile, employers that don’t require vaccination could be hit with a claim if an employee becomes sick with the virus.

Ever-changing government regulations can also make it difficult for retailers to keep up; in turn, a number of states have passed laws to provide some level of protection for different types of businesses. Still, many companies now need to take strict precautionary measures at stores and other facilities to avoid accusations of negligence should an employee or customer contract a coronavirus-related illness.

This story has been updated with a statement from Amazon.

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