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COVID-19 Workplace Safety Suit Against Amazon Portends Trouble for Firms

A lawsuit filed last month by New York Attorney General Letitia James against Amazon may signal a trend of more firms facing allegations that they failed to protect their workers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

AmazonThe e-commerce behemoth faces allegations that its “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” during the pandemic had exposed their employees and the wider public to risk, NPR reports. James alleges that two of the firm’s New York facilities exercised poor contact tracing and cleaning protocols, with one worker at a Staten Island warehouse having died from COVID-19.

Most of the workers at the two facilities were considered essential, with the Staten Island plant having about 5,000 workers and a Queens distribution center employing several hundred workers, according to the suit. While Amazon had received written notices that at least 250 of its staff in Staten Island had positive COVID-19 tests or diagnoses, the suit notes that “in more than 80 of these instances, Amazon failed to close any portion" of the facility even after learning of their workers’ positive coronavirus tests.

"Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprecedented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders,” James notes in the suit.

Amazon has challenged the suit and has sued James, arguing that federal labor and safety laws supersede New York’s law.

Company spokesperson Kelly Nantel noted in a statement that it does not “…believe the Attorney General's filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon's industry-leading response to the pandemic.”

Employment lawyers had been warning companies to expect such lawsuits from workers who were infected or laid-off and from families of deceased workers, Society For Human Resource Management reports.

"Given the uncertainty about whether workers' compensation will apply to COVID-19-related illnesses, it is important for employers to do all they can to limit potential liability," Jenifer Bologna, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y., said last May. Bologna noted then that companies' best bet is to abide by guidelines from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their state and local health officials and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters headquarters had allegedly disregarded proper safety protocols once employees were mandated to return to their office, Philadelphia Magazine reported last month, citing four workers who spoke anonymously for fear of losing their jobs. The four employees said that nearly everyone at the headquarters could work remotely. And according to the city’s health department, businesses are required to let their staff work from home unless that was impossible.

“And actually, for most of the jobs I’m talking about, it would be really easy,” one of the Urban Outfitters employees said. “But Urban just likes to make your life difficult. It’s a really high-pressure job. I feel like I can’t complain anymore about this or they are going to fire me.”

An Urban Outfitters spokesperson in response to employees who say the company has no human resources department, said it does have a department called “employee administration,” which is charged with taking care of complaints. “I have never heard of that department before,” one employee said. “Besides, that’s just not the way it works here. You don’t complain. It’s an incredibly toxic place to work, in part because this is the only game in town if you want to be in this industry. So they can take advantage of their employees. And they do. Every single day.”

While COVID-19 caused workplace litigation delays last year due to courts closing and changes in the way legal matters were handled, litigation will be picking up this year, JD Supra reports. “Employers who want to avoid getting sued by their employees would do well to start by updating their employee handbook,” the website reports. “Employee handbooks can be a litigation trap for employers, especially handbooks that include incorrect statements of the law, out-of-date policies that differ from the employer’s actual practice, promises of continued employment, or unintentional ambiguities.”

Top employers with the leverage to make large buys of the vaccine will use that to stand out from from competitors and to recruit new talent, Stamford, Connecticut-based research and advisory firm Gartner notes. “In tandem, with employers providing the vaccine, several companies will be sued for requiring their employees to have proof of vaccination before allowing them to return to the workplace,” Gartner contributor Brian Kropp writes. “The corresponding litigation will slow return-to-workplace efforts even as vaccine usage increases.”

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