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How to New York Attorney General Amazon ‘Flagrant Disregard’

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Early on in the pandemic New York Attorney General Letitia James promised an investigation into Amazon’s safety practices and, by god, she delivered.

Last night, James filed an expansive lawsuit against Amazon with the New York State Supreme Court for a myriad of alleged failures to adequately protect workers from and retaliation against whistleblowers. Amazon, anticipating the allegations, fired off a preemptive lawsuit last week asking a New York federal court to toss out James’s forthcoming suit. Barring the sliver of a chance that Amazon gets a swift victory in its opening salvo, prepare for a bitter war.

The James suit is a satisfying answer to last year’s series of nationwide protests by Amazon workers treated as disposable for the sake of Amazon’s bottom line, encapsulated by one wonderful Detroit worker who pointed out that “dildos are not essential items.” The New York Attorney General’s suit specifically focuses on a Staten Island fulfillment center, JFK8, and Queens distribution center, DBK1, which, combined, employ over 5,000 people. Both facilities have generated protests and dismal headlines.

Adding to JFK8’s running reputation for hazardous conditions, the Verge reported in April 2020 that the warehouse seemed to be an early “hotspot” for the virus, though the company neglected to inform workers of cases for days. DBK1 didn’t fare much better, according to a handful of accounts. In March, Gothamist reported that Amazon reopened the warehouse hours after its first confirmed case. During that time, Vice later reported, managers at the same warehouse were scrounging cleaning supplies from stores and failing to conduct safety audits. (Unfortunately, we don’t learn much more about DBK1 from the AG’s investigation, due to a lack of available documentation.)

The conclusions from the New York Attorney General’s investigation place the above accounts against a larger backdrop of the scale of Amazon’s awareness of rates within its ranks, and the lengths the company went to to discourage employees from speaking.

According to James’s suit, Amazon explicitly asked workers not to warn each other about their diagnoses. The company, it states, “has instructed infected workers not to communicate their infections with coworkers and instead to rely on Amazon’s contact-tracing program.” It goes on to note that “until at least late-June of 2020,” the program was, apparently, dangerously slow; it comprised video surveillance which “did not show all areas of the warehouse” and took 72 hours to review.

“Until at least late-June 2020, Amazon did not interview the infected worker for the purpose of determining close contacts,” it reads. “On occasions when a worker reported to Amazon having close contact with an infected coworker, Amazon dismissed the worker’s concerns and did not investigate or follow up on such information,” it adds. James asserts that Amazon limited the contact-tracing pool by only following up with workers who could provide medical documentation of a positive diagnosis.

For one, the AG’s office says that Amazon was aware of a staggering 250 confirmed cases at JFK8—about 7% of their non-peak-season workforce—90 of whom were on the job around the time Amazon was notified. The AG’s office says that Amazon closed or partially closed its warehouse in only seven of those cases.

It also claims that Amazon still relies on its own workers to clean their workstations, and even then, the complaint adds, they could be subjected to Amazon’s ghoulish “time off task” (TOT) system; managers can, the suit alleges, issue a TOT write-up for time spent maintaining personal hygiene, sanitizing, and follow social distancing measures. (TOT is Amazon surveillance speak for time spent not actively laboring; enough TOT warnings can get you fired ,as we’ve written about extensively.)

When asked whether such practices could be labelled time off task, an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo that “all performance targets have been built to allow for extra time so that associates can continue to practice social distancing, wash their hands and clean their work stations whenever needed.”

A worker from DBK1, who was granted anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Gizmodo that they’d never experienced a time off task warning for sanitizing. They also offered that they appreciate now-fairly regular onsite testing. Substantiating James’s assertions though, they claimed that coworkers who contracted were instructed to keep their diagnoses private.

Social distancing mandates, they said, can feel arbitrarily applied and unfair: managers are willing to cram workers onto a belt, but write people up for sitting too close in the break room. And with the removal of hazard pay, and a return to stricter attendance policies, Amazon warehouses seem like “even more of a panopticon police state than they were before.”

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