Amazon sues New York AG, criticizing ‘exorbitant demands’ and defending its COVID-19 response

Defending itself from claims by the New York Attorney General in a pre-emptive lawsuit, Amazon says it has spent more than $10 billion on COVID-19 response, including extensive safety precautions for fulfillment center workers. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon filed a pre-emptive lawsuit Friday morning against New York Attorney General Letitia James, defending its COVID-19 response at major facilities in Staten Island and Queens, N.Y., and across the country. The company criticized remedies proposed by the AG’s office as “exorbitant demands,” saying they result from a flawed assessment of its working conditions and safety precautions.

New York AG’s response: In a statement, James called Amazon’s suit “a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus,” vowing not to be intimidated by “corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people.”

“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,” James says in the statement.

Amazon’s goal: The company is asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for a declaration that the state AG lacks authority to regulate workplace safety conditions governed by federal law, or to take action over claims that the company retaliated against workers who protested over those conditions.

Background: The dispute dates back to the early days of the pandemic at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island and DBK1 delivery station in Queens.

  • It involves two Amazon workers, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who spoke out over safety conditions at Amazon’s giant JFK8 fulfillment center.
  • Amazon fired Smalls but insists it was due to him breaking safety protocols by putting other workers at risk to COVID-19 during a walkout after he was told to quarantine.
  • The dispute was fueled by a leaked memo in which Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky criticized Smalls as “not smart or articulate,” for which Zapolsky later apologized.

Amazon challenges timing of AG’s actions: The company’s suit says James publicly condemned the firing of Smalls hours after it happened, without investigating. Later, the suit says, the AG’s preliminary assessment against the company “did not mention the New York City Sheriff’s Office’s findings that Amazon went ‘above and beyond’ applicable compliance requirements and that complaints to the contrary were ‘baseless,’ or include any other facts favorable to Amazon.”

AG’s remedies: Amazon’s suit says the attorney general has threatened to sue the company “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.” According to Amazon’s suit, those include:

  • Requiring Amazon to “disgorge” profits, subsidize public bus service, and reduce its production speeds and performance requirements.
  • Ordering the company to “pay large sums to Mr. Smalls and Mr. Palmer for ’emotional distress.’ “
  • Making the company hire a health and safety consultant, and adopt safety policies the company says it has already implemented.

Amazon’s response: “Amazon already voluntarily offered to provide subsidized bus service to the [New York Metropolitan Transit  Authority], but the MTA rejected Amazon’s offer,” the company says in its suit . “Amazon already modified its production speeds and performance requirements to accommodate COVID-19 safety measures. And Amazon already retained some of the world’s leading experts to inform the company’s efforts to address the threat posed by COVID-19.”

Safety precautions: Much of Amazon’s 64-page complaint details its COVID-19 response, including the creation of its own COVID-19 testing capabilities; the use of computer vision technology to reinforce social distancing; and implementation of extensive health and safety measures in consultation with experts.

Big picture: The dispute comes amid broader scrutiny of Amazon distribution facilities, and its push to extend its delivery network across the country.

  • Mail-in voting began this week in an effort by workers to form a union at the company’s facility in Bessemer, Ala., the largest unionization drive faced by the company to date. Voting will conclude at the end of March.
  • Amazon is increasingly expanding its fulfillment and distribution network into rural parts of the country, including Delivery Stations for last-mile package delivery, increasingly supplementing and potentially supplanting UPS and the U.S. Postal Service in more areas.
  • Announcing its fourth-quarter results last week — including $7.2 billion in profits, more than double its profits a year ago — Amazon said it has increased the square footage of its fulfillment and logistics network by 50% in the past year.

Notable stats: At 857,388 square feet, Amazon’s $100 million JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island is the equivalent of more than 15 football fields, with more than 5,000 workers, the company says in its suit, seeking to illustrate the lengths to which it has gone to ensure worker safety at the massive facility.

Amazon’s full lawsuit is available here.

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