Labor & Employment Law Daily sued over purported lack of COVID-19 safety at Staten Island facility
Monday, June 8, 2020 sued over purported lack of COVID-19 safety at Staten Island facility

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The plaintiffs say that Amazon’s operations are a public nuisance because they unreasonably interfere with the public right to public health, and its actions breach its duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace.

A group of workers and their family members have sued in federal court in New York in an effort to force the massive online retailer to change its on-the-job and leave policies so they are in line with CDC and New York State public health guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The plaintiffs contend that employer’s practices at the JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, have put them and the surrounding community at serious risk of coronavirus exposure. Amazon’s policies incentivize symptomatic and other exposed workers to come to work and to not take proper precautions during their shifts, according to the complaint.

Infected worker’s infection leads to death at home. One of the plaintiffs allegedly contracted COVID-19 in March from workers who “were explicitly or implicitly encouraged to continue attending work and prevented from adequately washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations.” She allegedly brought the coronavirus home to her family; less than a month later, her cousin with whom she lived was found dead in the bathroom, after he had become ill with COVID-19 symptoms.

Quarantine pay. The plaintiff was eligible for and requested paid quarantine leave under New York law, which requires employers like Amazon to promptly issue quarantine pay to workers so that no one feels pressured to attend work when they may be sick, according to the complaint. Despite all she had gone through, Amazon allegedly failed to pay her quarantine leave in the next pay period as required, and after weeks of delay, ultimately compensated her for only a portion of the quarantine leave pay to which she was entitled.

Seeking mainly injunctive relief. Outside of this particular plaintiff’s claim for quarantine leave back pay, the suit does not seek damages for past harm, but rather seeks an order requiring Amazon to comply with public health guidance to prevent more harm in the future. Specifically, the plaintiffs are seeking:

  • A more transparent leave policy that encourages workers to stay home when dictated by state or federal public health guidance, without fear of losing their jobs;
  • Prompt payment of quarantine leave in accordance with New York’s Paid Family Leave law;
  • An increase to the allowance for “Time Off Task” so that workers can wash their hands and/or clean their work stations; and
  • More thorough disinfection of the facility after a worker tests positive.

The plaintiffs also want Amazon to follow CDC guidance for contact tracing when one of its workers tests positive for the virus (instead of relying on its own surveillance footage to determine who was exposed), or delegate contact tracing responsibilities to a trained professional.

Challenged practices. The plaintiffs are challenging the following purported practices at Amazon’s JFK8 facility:

  • Discouraging workers from performing basic hygiene, such as washing or sanitizing their hands, when doing so would require them to step away, even for a moment, from their workstations;
  • Refusing to change operations to properly sanitize workstations and high-touch surfaces, even when the workers who have touched those surfaces contract the virus that causes COVID-19;
  • Failing to clearly communicate to workers what they should do should they experience symptoms or believe they’ve been exposed to a coworker with COVID-19;
  • Denying prompt payment of quarantine leave benefits, as required by New York law, for those who have missed work because of mandatory isolation ordered by a local health department; and
  • Purporting to take responsibility for “contact tracing,” even while declining to take the most basic steps in tracking worker contacts, and in some cases purposefully concealing information about who has contracted the virus from the coworkers who may have come into contact with it.

Public nuisance. The plaintiffs contend that Amazon’s operations at JFK8 constitute a public nuisance because they unreasonably interfere with the common public right to public health and that Amazon’s actions are a breach of its duty to provide its workers with a reasonably safe workplace.

“A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in this case regarding the JFK8 facility will send a clear message to Amazon on how it can and should operate in a safer way everywhere,” said Beth Ellen Terrell (Terrell Marshall Law Group), one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Amazon is prospering during a time of unprecedented sacrifice and can more than afford to take basic steps to prevent widespread infection of its neighbors in the communities in which it operates.”

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