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Amazon wages legal battle with New York attorney general over pandemic safety response

Amazon is waging a legal battle with New York’s attorney general over the company’s Covid-19 protections for workers, filing a federal lawsuit to preempt the state’s demands for more safety measures.

In a complaint Friday, Amazon rejected an earlier conclusion by New York Attorney General Letitia James finding that the company had fallen short of health and safety standards at the company’s warehouses and calling for additional redress. The complaint asks a judge to block James from using state law to enforce her requests, which include calls for Amazon to subsidize public transit and hire a health and safety consultant.

Describing James’s requests as “exorbitant demands,” Amazon argued in the filing that its existing protections for workers “far exceed what is required under the law” and “go well beyond measures that the Office of the New York Attorney General (OAG’) has deemed comprehensive.”

Amazon cited the company’s temperature screening policy, signs advising social distancing, and staggering employee shifts at its Staten Island facility as some examples of how it has gone above and beyond. An inspection by the city’s own sheriff’s office, Amazon said, found “absolutely no areas of concern.”

Critics of the company, including a number of its own employees, have said Amazon was slow to address the risks the coronavirus posed to frontline workers. Amazon did not announce temperature screenings, for example, until after numerous reports of illnesses and outbreaks at Amazon facilities nationwide.

Amazon has faced several employee lawsuits over its Covid response. Christian Smalls, an employee at the Staten Island facility who was fired after organizing a protest over the plant’s Covid-19 response, has worked with James on her investigation, and filed his own lawsuit against the company last year. (Amazon has said Smalls was fired for violating the terms of a Covid quarantine.) Another suit on similar issues has been tossed out by a judge.

Now, Amazon’s lawsuit reflects how the company is going on the offensive.

“The OAG has now threatened to sue Amazon if it does not immediately agree to a list of demands, many of which have no connection to health and safety and have no factual or legal basis,” Friday’s complaint said. “Among other things, the OAG has demanded that Amazon ‘disgorge’ profits, subsidize public bus service, reduce its production speeds and performance requirements, reinstate Mr. Smalls and pay large sums to Mr. Smalls and Mr. Palmer for ’emotional distress,’ retain a health and safety consultant to oversee safety and production, and adopt safety-related policies it already implemented.”

Amazon also alleged that federal workplace safety law should preempt James’s invocation of state law.

In response to the lawsuit on Friday, James accused Amazon of making “a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus.”

“We will not be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people,” she said in a statement. “We remain undeterred in our efforts to protect workers from exploitation and will continue to review all of our legal options.”

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