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Amazon Workers Sue Over 'Culture of Fear' That Prioritizes Productivity Over Covid-19 Concerns

Illustration for article titled Amazon Workers Sue Over Culture of Fear That Prioritizes Productivity Over Covid-19 Concerns
Photo: Getty

Amazon’s poor handling of the covid-19 crisis affecting workers at its warehouses has made it the target of a new lawsuit filed by a group of workers at JFK8, an Amazon facility in Staten Island.

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The complaint, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, claims that Amazon failed to comply with state laws as well as health guidance issued by both the state and federal health authorities at its JFK8 facility, allegedly resulting in injury and death of some workers and their loved ones. The complaint further alleges that despite measures taken following public pressure about the health dangers faced by workers at Amazon’s warehouses, Amazon botched even those efforts and created a “culture of fear” to keep production humming along at the cost of the health and safety of its workers.

“Although Amazon has sought to create a façade of compliance by, for example, providing fulfillment center employees with masks, the company has also relied on purposeful miscommunication with workers, sloppy contact tracing, and the culture of workplace fear it has instilled at JFK8 to ensure it can maintain productivity while reducing costs, even if that means workers come to work sick and cannot engage in proper hygiene, sanitizing, or social distancing while at work in order to stay healthy,” the complaint states.

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The complaint argues that rather than being a small operation struggling to do the best it can, Amazon is, in fact, one of the richest companies in the world. But far from just failing early on to provide necessary protections to workers who are effectively frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has allegedly informed workers at JFK8 that they should “avoid telling others if they become infected and rely on Amazon to perform contract tracing.” This alarming accusation appears to align with previously reported frustrations by workers and lawmakers that the company failed to be transparent about the number of cases or deaths of workers during this time.

For its part, Amazon claims that it notifies employees verbally and with calls or texts when there is a confirmed case of covid-19 at one of its sites. It also claims that employees can share their health diagnosis with other workers. In a statement, the company did not comment on the lawsuit or its allegations directly but instead commented on the initiatives it’s put in place at its facilities (some of them pretty recent, in theory).

“From early March to May 1, we offered our employees unlimited time away from work, and since May 1 we have offered leave for those most vulnerable or who need to care for children or family members,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “We also invested $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives, including over $800 million in the first half of this year on safety measures like temperature checks, masks, gloves, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, extended pay and benefits options, testing, and more. This includes two weeks paid leave for any COVID diagnosis or quarantine, and launching a $25 million fund to support our partners and contractors.”

This iron-grip on information related to the spread of the disease at its facilities, the complaint argues, creates a “culture of workplace fear reinforced by constant technological supervision” and makes difficult worker efforts to protect themselves and their families. Indeed the very nature of their jobs makes practicing safety measures like social distancing quite difficult.

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For example, Derrick Palmer, a JFK8 worker and one of the plaintiffs named in the suit, was cited in the complaint as working in a Process Guide role that required “regular and close interaction” with more than three dozen other workers at the facility. Another plaintiff and JFK8 worker, Barbara Chandler, was cited in the complaint as contracting and bringing the virus home to her family. Less than a month later and after having displayed covid-19 symptoms, he found him dead in their home.

The complaint states that beyond negligence that jeopardizes the health and safety of its workers, Amazon has also targeted employees who have spoken out about the company’s lack of meaningful protections for workers in its warehouses—a measure so shitty even by Amazon’s remarkably low standards that it led one of its longtime executives left the company in May, writing a brutal public letter about the company’s firing of whistleblowers.

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DISCUSSION

How do people arrive at the conclusion that Amazon botched their response to the virus? Brick and mortar retailers were forced to close, meaning consumers were going to flood Amazon with new orders.

They received unprecedented demand and were faced with the choice to either scale back their operations and risk leaving the customers hanging, or stay open and risk infecting their workers. They did a little of both, shutting down the shipment of non-essential goods whilst keeping the essentials flowing. They even extended shipping estimates to ease some of the pressure on the workers.

You guys labeled anti-lockdown protesters and church-goers as potentially dangerous super spreaders, and now just weeks later you offer tacit support for BLM protests where the participants have increased tenfold.

Get your story straight. Either the virus is dangerous enough to warrant lockdowns, or it isn’t.