Amazon on Friday sued New York’s attorney general, alleging her probe of its treatment of warehouse workers is illegal.
“The OAG has now threatened to sue Amazon if it does not immediately agree to a list of demands, many of which have no connection to health and safety and have no factual or legal basis,” Amazon said in the filing, referring to the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.
“The OAG’s exorbitant demands are based on a standard for workplace health and safety far more stringent than the standard adopted by the OAG when defending, in other litigation, the New York State Courts’ reasonable but more limited safety response to COVID-19 in the face of threats greater than those present in Amazon’s private facilities,” it added.
The Seattle-based company is asking a judge to declare James, a Democrat, lacks authority to regulate how Amazon treats employees who protest working conditions and how Amazon is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The suit stems from the termination of Chris Smalls, a Staten Island employee Amazon fired after he organized a walkout to protest conditions at the workplace.
Smalls claimed Amazon wasn’t doing enough to keep workers safe. Amazon says it terminated Smalls and other associate at its JFK8 facility because they committed health and safety violations. Smalls “repeatedly violated social distancing requirements and an order to quarantine and stay off Amazon property—for which he was paid—due to a potential COVID-19 exposure,” the company said in the new suit.
Hours after Smalls was fired, James issued a statement condemning the firing.
“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues. At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19. Today, Chris Smalls was fired. In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited,” she said at the time.
James called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident and later informed Amazon in a letter that it may have violated labor practices in the firing.
James said preliminary findings “raise serious concern that Amazon may have discharged [Smalls] in order to silence his complaints and send a threatening message to other employees that they should also keep quiet about any health and safety concerns.”
Amazon said the step of making a preliminary assessment was unusual and that the findings clashed with the New York City Sheriff’s Office, which found Amazon went went “above and beyond” applicable compliance requirements and that complaints to the contrary were “baseless.”
Smalls sued Amazon late last year, arguing Amazon violated federal law in the termination. In another related case, the National Labor Relations Board alleged Amazon illegally fired worker Gerald Bryson, who led a protest outside the same Staten Island warehouse. That case hasn’t been fully resolved.
Amazon disclosed in October 2020 that nearly 20,000 workers were presumed or confirmed to have COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus. One of the largest employers in the United States, Amazon has over 1.3 million workers across its facilities and Whole Foods, which it owns.
Amazon argued in the new filing that it has exceeded what is required under the law, including screening employee temperatures when they arrive for work, putting in place numerous signs stating its social distancing policy, and staggering shifts to try to reduce employee density.
In a statement in response to the suit, James said: “Throughout this pandemic, Amazon employees have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, all while the company and its CEO made billions off of their backs. This action by Amazon is nothing more than a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus. Let me be clear: We will not be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people. We remain undeterred in our efforts to protect workers from exploitation and will continue to review all of our legal options.”