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Amazon files preemptive lawsuit against New York AG

Amazon files preemptive lawsuit against New York AG
© ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon is asking a court to block New York’s attorney general from bringing a case against it over workplace safety or the firing of employees who protested its coronavirus response.

In a filing in the Eastern District Court of New York, the e-commerce giant argued that the health and safety of its workers is out of Attorney General Letitia James’s purview.

“More fundamental than applying an inconsistent and incorrect standard, the OAG lacks the legal authority it purports to wield against Amazon,” the filing reads.

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James’s office has threatened legal action against Amazon for both its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the firing of Chris Smalls, who led an employee protest at the company’s Staten Island facility after a co-worker tested positive.

Amazon argued in Friday’s lawsuit that its safety protocols have gone above and beyond requirements to protect its workers from COVID-19, touting a $800 million investment in safety measures during the first half of 2020.

It also pointed to internally collected data suggesting that Amazon and Whole Foods front-line workers in New York have tested positive for the disease at a rate 50 percent lower than the general population of the state.

In addition to arguments about its precautions, Amazon argues that the Occupational Safety and Health Act preempts the use of state law to regulate workplace safety.

Amazon’s handling of the pandemic has been heavily criticized by its workers. Protests were organized across the country after thousands of workers fell ill and some died.

The company revealed in October that nearly 20,000 of its employees in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. It has not publicly updated the numbers since.

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One of the first of the protests over the coronavirus conditions was in Staten Island, after which Smalls and Derrick Palmer were fired. Amazon maintains, and argued in the lawsuit, that they were fired for violating health and safety protocols.

A memo was leaked soon after the firings detailing plans to smear Smalls, a Black man, as “not smart or articulate."

Amazon’s filing argues that the merits of a potential case over the dismissals aside, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Labor Relations Board have jurisdiction in that space.

James called the lawsuit an effort to “intimidate” her office in a statement Friday.

“Throughout this pandemic, Amazon employees have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, all while the company and its CEO made billions off of their backs,” she said.

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