Tech

Amazon Sues New York Attorney General to Block Covid-19 Charges

McCabe David / February 15, 2021

The company said the attorney general, Letitia James, had overstepped her authority in investigating workplace safety.

Amazon sued New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, on Friday in an attempt to stop her from bringing charges against the company over safety concerns at two of its warehouses in New York City.

The company also asked the court to force Ms. James to declare that she does not have authority to regulate workplace safety during the Covid-19 pandemic or to investigate allegations of retaliation against employees who protest their working conditions.

In the case, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Amazon said Ms. James’s office had been investigating pandemic safety concerns raised by employees at its large fulfillment center on Staten Island and at a delivery depot in Queens. It said Ms. James had “threatened to sue” Amazon if it did not agree to her demands, including subsidizing bus service, reducing worker productivity requirements, disgorging profits and reinstating Christian Smalls, a worker Amazon fired in the spring.

Mr. Smalls has said he was retaliated against for leading a protest at the Staten Island warehouse. Amazon has said he was fired for going to the work site for the protest even though he was on paid quarantine leave after he had been exposed to a colleague who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr. Smalls became the most visible case in the clashes between workers and Amazon, which faced a surge of orders from consumers hunkering down. As the pandemic spread across the country, many Amazon workers said the company missed early opportunities to provide better protection against Covid-19.

Amazon has strongly defended its safety measures and has gone on the offensive against its critics. In notes from an internal meeting of senior executives, Amazon’s top lawyer called Mr. Smalls inarticulate and discussed strategies for making him the face of the worker organizing.

In its 64-page complaint, Amazon said its safety measures “far exceed what is required under the law,” and it argued that federal law, not the state law enforced by the New York attorney general, had primary oversight for workplace safety concerns.

“The O.A.G. lacks the legal authority it purports to wield against Amazon,” the company said.

Amazon declined to comment beyond the filing.

Ms. James, in a statement, said the suit was “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.”

She said her office was reviewing its legal options. “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,” she said.

James Brudney, a labor law professor at Fordham University, said it was uncommon for companies to file the kind of “scorched earth” anticipatory suit that Amazon had.

“They want to fight,” he said about Amazon. “They always want to fight.”

Mr. Brudney said federal law does pre-empt state workplace safety enforcement in many cases, though there are exceptions Ms. James could argue.

“It seems reasonable to see whether the state can prove its case,” he said. He added that federal oversight had “failed terribly and tragically” to create and enforce pandemic workplace safety, so states have been stepping in to address the gaps.

Much of Amazon’s complaint details its pandemic response, including setting up temperature checks at entrances, providing masks and offering free testing on-site. It said that, by its calculations, 1.15 percent of its New York frontline employees had tested positive or been presumed positive for the coronavirus, about half the rate for the general population in the state.

The complaint also quoted from an email documenting the New York City Sheriff’s Office’s unannounced inspection of the Staten Island warehouse on March 30 that stated that Amazon “appeared to go above and beyond the current compliance requirements.”