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Amazon faces new pressure over COVID protections in warehouses

Amazon is facing new questions over failed COVID protections in its fulfillment centers, spurred on by New York Attorney General Letitia James. After more than a year of protests from workers and inquiries from legislators, James is now seeking a court order to require Amazon to appoint a monitor to oversee health and safety measures at its warehouse on Staten Island. As part of the same motion, James asked the company to reinstate fired worker Christian Smalls, who led public protests against Amazon last year, accusing the company of failing to keep employees from contracting the virus at work.

According to James, Amazon has rolled back many of its health and safety measures at the warehouse, known as JFK8. The Staten Island warehouse, which employs roughly 5,000 people, has been the site of an ongoing tug of war between Amazon and its employees.

“Amazon and its leadership banked billions of dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the crisis rages on, the health and concerns of the workers continue to be ignored,” James said in a statement. “Amazon must guarantee a work environment that promotes safety, transparency, and respect for its hardworking employees, not one that further endangers them.”

In February, Amazon pre-emptively sued the New York AG’s office, saying the office lacked the legal authority to demand legal remedies for the company’s handling of COVID-19 conditions at JFK8. James’ office filed suit against the company four days later, alleging Amazon failed to protect its warehouse employees in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and retaliated against workers who raised concerns about what they viewed as insufficient safety measures.

Workers at Amazon’s JKF8 warehouse said in March 2020 that they didn’t have enough protective equipment and were not informed if their co-workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Amazon fired several workers who protested the conditions, including Smalls, after the workers staged public protests. Amazon said at the time that Smalls and the other workers were not fired for protesting but for violating social distancing rules. James sought an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, calling Smalls’ firing “disgraceful.”

James says in the latest motion, filed in New York’s state Supreme Court, that Amazon “unlawfully fired and disciplined workers who reported their concerns about the company’s compliance with these health and safety mandates, including Christian Smalls.” James is also seeking a court order to reinstate Smalls on an interim basis, pending the outcome of the lawsuit. The suit claims Smalls’ firing served as intimidation to other employees who may be afraid to come forward with additional concerns.

James also alleges that Amazon violated state law when it failed to conduct adequate cleaning protocols, according to an investigation by her office, and that its contact tracing program failed to identify workers who had come into contact with others who tested positive for the virus.

The motion asks the court to order Amazon to change how it monitors employees’ productivity to allow time for cleaning and social distancing and require the company to adopt adequate disinfection protocols when an infected worker has been in the facility. The AG’s office also wants the company to institute better COVID-19 contact tracing protocols, which would include notifying close contacts of infected workers. The suit seeks to have a court-appointed monitor oversee these changes.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement to The Verge that the company had incurred more than $15 billion in costs as part of a “comprehensive approach to COVID-19 safety” measures, to support customers and employees. “It’s disappointing that the Attorney General is seeking to politicize the pandemic by asking for ‘emergency’ relief now despite having filed this lawsuit nine months ago,” Nantel continued, adding that the company had “listened to and learned from the experts.”

Update: November 30th 7:11 PM ET: Adds statement from Amazon spokesperson

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