AG James requests court monitor for COVID safety at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse

FILE PHOTO: Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center in Staten Island, New York City
An employee scans packages at Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center in Staten Island, Nov. 25, 2020.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

New York Attorney General Letitia James requested a court-appointed monitor to oversee Amazon’s COVID-19 safety precautions at its Staten Island warehouse Tuesday, as the e-tail giant gears up for a busy holiday season.

“Amazon and its leadership banked billions of dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the crisis rages on, the health and concerns of the workers continue to be ignored,” said James in a statement on Nov. 30. “Amazon must guarantee a work environment that promotes safety, transparency, and respect for its hardworking employees, not one that further endangers them.”

The AG filed for a preliminary injunction with New York State Supreme Court as part of an ongoing lawsuit asking for an outside monitor to make sure Amazon implements better precautions against the pandemic at its JFK8 distribution center and that the company rehires Christian Smalls, a worker who was fired after speaking out about unsafe conditions early on in the pandemic.

The state’s top prosecutor, and candidate for governor, wants Amazon to relax its tracking of employee productivity to give workers more time for cleaning, personal hygiene, and social distancing.

The company is notorious for closely monitoring worker productivity and disciplines them for being slow or spending too much time on so-called “time-off tasks.”

The company paused productivity discipline in 2020 but has resumed the practice, which AG James alleges deters workers from scrubbing down workstations, washing hands, and social distancing, because spending time on those tasks could badly affect their work stats. 

The company also must improve its cleaning and disinfection protocols after someone with COVID has been at the facility and institute better contact tracing protocols for workers who get infected, according to James.

The AG’s demand for relief also asks Amazon to temporarily rehire Smalls, who in March 2020 spoke up and protested about pandemic safety and was fired soon after, and has since spearheaded a unionization drive of workers at the facility.

The company began rolling back its pandemic safety measures in July, such as getting rid of staggered shifts and breaks, social distancing measures, temperature screenings, and bringing back more crowded gatherings.

It has also gone on a hiring spree for the holidays, meaning the facilities will be as packed as ever in the coming weeks with as many as 5,000 workers at the facility, the legal filings read.

James’s office sued Amazon in February 2021 over its failure to provide health and safety measures for employees and alleging the company retaliated against several workers for speaking out against the conditions.

Her new filings request Smalls be reinstated pending the outcome of the ongoing litigation.

An Amazon spokesperson shot back at James accusing her of politicizing the pandemic. 

“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,” said Kelly Nantel in an emailed statement.