Court dismisses workplace safety lawsuit against Amazon

It's a rare win for the e-commerce juggernaut regarding the health and safety of its workers

Court dismisses workplace safety lawsuit against Amazon

Amazon finally got a win today after years of criticism over its lack of workplace safety.

A New York state appeals court has dismissed state Attorney General Letitia James' lawsuit accusing the e-commerce juggernaut of failing to adequately protect thousands of workers at two New York City facilities against COVID-19, Reuters reported.

The court ruled that federal law preempted James' claims that the Seattle-based company violated state labor law by retaliating against two employees who protested against working conditions. The court also said James' effort to require the company to comply with state COVID-19 workplace guidelines was moot because New York has withdrawn the guidance.

Read more: Is Amazon an ‘injury machine?’

In February 2021, James sued the online retailer over its health and safety protocols for workers at its JFK8 fulfillment warehouse in Staten Island and DBK1 delivery center in Queens. Amazon fired employee Christian Smalls for allegedly violating a paid quarantine to lead a protest in March 2020 and gave fellow employee Derrick Palmer a written warning for allegedly violating social distancing rules, according to the lawsuit.

The appeals court said protests against unsafe working conditions “relate to the workers' participation in concerted activities for the purpose of ... mutual aid or protection,” and were protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. The four-judge panel also said issuing a ruling could pose a "substantial risk of interference" with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is considering similar allegations of retaliation.

Smalls and Palmer have since formed the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted by a roughly 5-4 margin to join last month. It’s the first union in the company’s history. The ALU has called for the e-commerce giant to raise wages, give more paid breaks and vacation time, enact “more reasonable” productivity rates in the warehouse, among other demands.

The second-largest private employer in the United States has earned a reputation for being an “injury machine.” According to a recent report, Amazon warehouse workers are far more likely to suffer serious injuries at work compared with their counterparts in other companies. Specifically, the company recorded 6.8 serious injuries for every 100 Amazon warehouse workers in 2021. This is more than the 3.3 serious injuries for every 100 workers for the rest of the industry, noted the Strategic Organizing Center.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert letter to Amazon for the Dec. 10, 2021 incident that left six workers dead. On that day, the workers were killed when a series of tornadoes hit a warehouse (DLI4) in Edwardsville, IL. One employee was also critically wounded.

OSHA’s letter, signed by Area Director Aaron Priddy, did not mention any violation or citations for Amazon, saying the company’s severe weather emergency procedures met minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering.

Early in 2020, U.S. senators issued a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos expressing concern about the safety of Amazon employees. Andy Jassy – who took over as CEO from Bezos in July 2021 – wrote in his first letter to the company’s shareholders that he wants to reduce injury rates among frontline workers.

 

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