Amazon Workers Say NY Warehouse Unsafe Amid COVID-19

By Lauren Berg
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Law360 (June 3, 2020, 10:05 PM EDT) -- Amazon has failed to follow laws and health guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic at its fulfillment center on Staten Island, leading to the death and injury of warehouse workers and their families, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in New York federal court.

Amazon is more worried about maintaining productivity than making sure its workers aren't coming to work sick and allowing them to practice proper hygiene and social distancing on the job, according to the complaint filed by a group of warehouse workers and their relatives.

Workers at the New York City warehouse walked off the job in March, demanding that the e-commerce giant shut down and sanitize the facility after workers there tested positive for the virus.

The workers said Amazon's failures to keep the JFK8 warehouse safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has already led to the death of at least one worker and caused other workers to bring the virus home to their families.

"Amazon is not a small business doing its best under uncertain guidance, and Amazon is not helpless to prevent injury and death caused by virus spread occurring within its facility," the workers said. "Amazon is one of the wealthiest companies in the world, and it uses cutting-edge technology to monitor its workers at JFK8, choreographing their locations within the facility by algorithm and using hand-held scanners and smartphone applications to record their movements and track, on a minute-by-minute basis, whether they are working or are 'off task.'"

The suit — filed by Derrick Palmer, Kendia Mesidor, Benita Rouse, Alexander Rouse, Barbara Chandler and Luis Pellot-Chandler — includes claims of public nuisance, breach of duty to protect the health and safety of employees, and failure to pay earned wages in a timely manner. The plaintiffs want Amazon to pay workers for quarantine leave, not force workers to come to work if they are sick, and give workers more time to wash their hands and sanitize their workstations, as well as damages.

Chandler said she contracted the virus in March from her fellow workers, who were encouraged to continue coming to work and were prevented from washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations. Then she took the virus home to her family and less than a month later, she said her cousin died after experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Chandler requested quarantine leave under New York law, which requires companies like Amazon to compensate workers in quarantine to make sure they don't feel pressure to come back to work, where they could infect others, according to the suit.

Amazon eventually paid Chandler a fraction of the quarantine compensation to which she was entitled, according to the workers.

The workers said they want Amazon to comply with laws and health and safety guidance to prevent more people from being injured. They also want more communication from the retail giant about what they should do if they experience symptoms of COVID-19.

"As someone whose partner felt it was unsafe to visit her elderly family member because of the dangerous conditions at my job, I know too well the costs of Amazon's failure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the facility," plaintiff Derrick Palmer said in a statement Wednesday. "We want to protect our own health, but also peace of mind for our family members, and safety for the many communities in which JFK8 workers live."

Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon spokesperson, told Law360 on Wednesday evening that the company is saddened by the impact COVID-19 has had on communities around the world, including Amazon employees and their families. She said that from early March to May 1 the company has offered employees unlimited time away from work and since May 1 has offered leave for those most vulnerable to the virus or who need to care for family members.

"We also invested $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives, including over $800 million in the first half of this year on safety measures like temperature checks, masks, gloves, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, extended pay and benefits options, testing and more," Levandowski said. "This includes two weeks paid leave for any COVID diagnosis or quarantine and launching a $25 million fund to support our partners and contractors."

Amazon said it has always followed the guidance of federal and local health authorities and complies with all state and federal laws regarding public health. The company said it has passed every one of the 91 inspections it received from state health and safety regulatory agencies since March.

Last month, 13 U.S. attorneys general called on Amazon and subsidiary Whole Foods to release information about the number of coronavirus-related infections and deaths among their workforce, as well as evidence of how the companies are keeping their workers safe.

The AGs said they were "deeply disappointed" that the companies had not met the states' request in an earlier letter to improve their coronavirus paid leave. The AGs asked that the companies match the policies required under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed in March.

Amazon isn't the only company facing health and safety scrutiny during the virus crisis.

Also on Wednesday, an Illinois state court judge refused to toss a proposed class of Chicago McDonald's employees' accusations that the company and certain franchisees haven't done enough to protect them during the ongoing pandemic.

The Amazon warehouse workers are represented by Juno Turner, David H. Seligman and Valerie Collins of Towards Justice, Sienna Fontaine, Elizabeth Jordan and Frank Rankin Kearl of Make the Road New York, Karla Gilbride and Stephanie K. Glaberson of Public Justice and Beth Ellen Terrell, Toby J. Marshall, Amanda M. Steiner and Blythe H. Chandler of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.

Counsel information for Amazon was not immediately available.

The case is Derrick Palmer et al. v. Amazon.com Inc. et al., case number 1:20-cv-02468, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

--Additional reporting by Braden Campbell, Dave Simpson and Lauraann Wood. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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

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