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Amazon rolled back Covid safety protocols in warehouses, says New York attorney general

CNBC logo CNBC 11/30/2021 Annie Palmer
  • New York Attorney General Letitia James claimed Tuesday that Amazon has rolled back its coronavirus safety protocols in at least one of its warehouses.
  • James sued Amazon in February, alleging it failed to adequately protect workers from the coronavirus.
  • On Tuesday, Amazon filed a motion as part of her suit urging a judge to appoint a monitor to oversee worker safety at its facility on Staten Island.
An employee scans packages at Amazon's JFK8 distribution center in Staten Island, New York, U.S. November 25, 2020. © Provided by CNBC An employee scans packages at Amazon's JFK8 distribution center in Staten Island, New York, U.S. November 25, 2020.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking an emergency court order to force Amazon to implement stricter Covid-19 protocols, arguing the company's decision to roll back safety measures in at least one of its warehouses leaves employees at a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

James sought the motion for relief on Tuesday as part of a lawsuit she filed earlier this year, which claims the online retail giant prioritized profit over worker safety at its New York facilities and retaliated against employees who voiced concerns for their safety during the pandemic.

As part of the motion, James urged the court to appoint a monitor to oversee worker safety at Amazon's New York facilities. James is also asking for a court order that would require Amazon to rehire Chris Smalls, an employee who was fired last March after speaking out about working conditions.

"The State now seeks preliminary injunctive relief because Amazon is rolling back its already inadequate public health measures and acting as if the pandemic is over when the risk of virus transmission is increasing, and a new variant threatens to cause even higher rates of transmission, illness, and death," the motion states.

"While case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths rise, Amazon rescinds protections and packs in more workers for its holiday rush," according to the filing.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNBC in a statement: "It's disappointing that the Attorney General is seeking to politicize the pandemic by asking for 'emergency' relief now despite having filed this lawsuit nine months ago. We're working hard every day for our team, and the facts are that we moved fast from the onset of the pandemic, listened to and learned from the experts, and have taken a comprehensive approach to COVID-19 safety — incurring more than $15B in costs to support our employees and customers."

Amazon didn't respond to questions about whether it has rolled back coronavirus safety measures in its warehouses. Earlier this month, Amazon said it would no longer require fully vaccinated U.S. warehouse employees to wear masks at work, unless mandated by state or local law.

In October, a federal judge rejected Amazon's bid to have James' suit tossed.

Amazon and other major corporations with front-line workers have continuously modified safety protocols as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched on. Over the summer, many companies relaxed safety measures like mandatory mask wearing as cases dropped and vaccines became available, only to reinstate some policies later on as the highly contagious delta variant spread.

In recent weeks, public health officials have issued warnings about the new Covid variant omicron, a heavily mutated strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in South Africa two weeks ago. The emergence of the variant rattled global markets and sparked new travel restrictions in some countries.

What workers told the AG, according to affidavits

Amazon began rolling back coronavirus safety measures over the summer, according to the motion.

Amazon informed workers on July 7 that it was returning to many pre-pandemic practices, according to the filing. As a result, the company has dropped some coronavirus safety measures it installed at the onset of the pandemic, such as temperature screenings, social distancing enforcement and staggered shift and break times.

Other measures intended to prevent crowding, such as limiting capacity in break rooms and calling off so-called "stand-up" meetings at the start of shifts, have since been discontinued, the filing states.

James' office cited affidavits from two Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island, Derrick Palmer and Tristian Martinez, detailing reduced Covid safety measures and a redacted photo of a stand-up gathering at the Staten Island facility, known as JFK8.

"Amazon does not have a mandate that all workers must be vaccinated," according to Palmer's affidavit. "I come in contact with hundreds of other workers at JFK8 each day, and I do not know who is vaccinated and who is not."

Amazon informed workers on July 30 that it was ending its onsite Covid-19 testing program, Palmer's affidavit states.

Amazon's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized by warehouse workerspoliticians and state attorneys general. They argue Amazon moved too slowly in its efforts to provide personal protective equipment, temperature checks and other tools to keep employees safe. The company and its founder Jeff Bezos have pushed back on these accusations, saying Amazon has gone to "great lengths" to protect workers from the coronavirus. 

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