Amazon's Virus Response Allegedly Harmed Minority Workers

By Dave Simpson
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Law360 (November 12, 2020, 10:13 PM EST) -- A former Amazon Inc. warehouse worker hit the online retail giant with a putative discrimination class action in New York federal court Thursday, alleging that the e-commerce giant's inadequate response to the COVID-19 outbreak disproportionately endangered workers of color.

Christian Smalls, who has become one of the faces of the protest movement against Amazon, said that the company failed to provide personal protective equipment to its predominantly Black and Latino workers, subjecting them to inferior conditions compared to its predominantly white managerial workers.

"In so proceeding, defendant adopted a practice which intentionally, disproportionately, and adversely affected-African American and Hispanic workers," the complaint alleged. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Smalls, who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, led protests in the earliest days of the U.S. outbreak after, he says, Amazon failed to provide workers with the proper gear and put in place a murky policy for workers exposed to, or experiencing symptoms of, the virus.

His complaint made references to an alleged memo sent from Amazon's General Counsel David Zapolsky to CEO Jeff Bezos, referring to Smalls as "not smart or articulate" and suggesting that he should be made the face of the protest movement because he would be an easy target to beat.

Smalls, who was an assistant manager in the center's outbound department, told Law360 in March that he began planning a protest after an associate working under him showed up to her shift looking "horrible." Amazon had recently given paid leave to workers who test positive for COVID-19 or are quarantined, but workers who felt sick without a diagnosis were forced to choose between a paycheck and their colleagues' health, he said.

The worker told Smalls she was tested for the virus but had yet not gotten a diagnosis, so he sent her home. The next day, her test came back positive. Several more Staten Island workers were diagnosed in the days that followed, but Amazon largely kept workers in the dark about the spread in the facility, Smalls said.

Smalls, who was quarantined with pay, helped to organize protests in response to the pandemic. He was later fired, the suit claimed.

Amazon has come under fire for its alleged workplace conditions.

Last month, three Massachusetts Democratics accused Amazon of misleading lawmakers about the safety of its warehouse fulfillment centers, saying that a recent news report suggested that the company is not addressing high injury rates among its workers despite publicly touting workplace safety.

In a sharply worded letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dated Oct. 14, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy questioned whether the company was committed to safety over profit and demanded that it provide information about what changes it has made since January to prioritize workers' safety.

Earlier this month, a New York federal judge denied workers at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse a court order forcing the e-commerce giant to boost COVID-19 protections, defanging a novel suit alleging that the company's pandemic policies amount to a "public nuisance."

U.S. Federal Judge Brian Cogan said it's the place of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not the courts, to decide whether Amazon is doing enough to protect workers at its JFK8 fulfillment center, dismissing without prejudice the workers' claims that Amazon's purported inaction poses a public nuisance and that the company breached its duty to provide a safe workplace.

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smalls is represented by Michael H. Sussman of Sussman & Watkins and Tricia CK Hoffler of the CK Hoffler Firm.

Counsel for Amazon was not immediately known.

The case is Smalls et al v. Amazon Inc., case number 1:20-cv-05492, in the U.S. District court for the Eastern District of New York.

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Smalls v. Amazon, Inc.


Case Number

1:20-cv-05492

Court

New York Eastern

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Jobs

Judge

Rachel P. Kovner

Date Filed

November 12, 2020

Companies

Government Agencies

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