A US federal judge has dealt Amazon a setback in a case brought by New York attorney general Letitia James over worker safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
US District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan granted a request by James to return her lawsuit to a New York state court, rejecting Amazon’s effort to move it to Brooklyn federal court.
Amazon had earlier sued James in the Brooklyn court to stop her from suing.
The company argued that federal laws rather than state laws applied in the case, and also said the Brooklyn court should be used in order to consolidate the two lawsuits.
Amazon and James’ office declined to comment on the Friday decision, which is a setback to Amazon’s efforts to reframe the dispute by arguing that James overstepped her authority.
James’ action argues Amazon “repeatedly and persistently failed” to protect workers at a Staten Island warehouse and a Queens distribution centre, instead prioritising profits.
It also accuses the company of illegally retaliating against employees who voiced safety concerns.
She said Amazon had “cut corners” in protecting workers in order to prioritise productivity, sales volume and profitability.
James said New York state law gives her the authority to “promote proper business conduct and ensure that current and future Amazon employees have a safe and honest workplace”.
Her lawsuit seeks improved protection for workers and damages for two Amazon staff who she alleges were fired illegally after complaining.
One of the two, Christian Smalls, a former worker at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, was fired after organising a protest over working conditions in March 2020. Amazon said at the time that Smalls had violated quarantine rules.
James’ lawsuit also noted allegations in a legal action by employees at the Staten Island facility last June that Amazon’s time-tracking system discouraged workers from taking the time to wash their hands or wipe down their workstations, and impeded social distancing.
The Staten Island lawsuit said at least 44 workers at the warehouse had contracted Covid-19, and at least one worker had died of it.
James’ action is one of several that have focused international attention on the working conditions of essential staff at large tech giants such as Amazon and Google during the pandemic.
Amazon said last October that nearly 20,000 of its staff had contracted Covid-19, but also described extensive safety precautions it had put into place. The company is the US’ second-biggest employer after Wal-Mart.
Amazon recently defeated a landmark effort to unionise one of its warehouses in Alabama, a campaign that also took its impetus from Covid-19 concerns.
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