(CBS NEWS) – Amazon warehouse workers are suing the retailer for allegedly failing to provide protections against the novel coronavirus such as adequate supplies to sanitize their workspaces. One worker claims she contracted COVID-19 at the warehouse, and subsequently infected her cousin, who died after experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in New York, accuses Amazon of failing to comply with labor laws and of relying on “oppressive and dangerous” practices that heighten risks to workers, even without a pandemic.
The lawsuit is asking for an injunction that would force Amazon to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York State guidelines, such as providing workers with access to 48 hours of paid time off. The lawsuit also seeks extra time for workers to sanitize their workstations, among other changes.
The retailer has come under scrutiny for its employment practices during the coronavirus pandemic, with workers walking off the job at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse known as JFK8 to draw attention to what they claimed was foot-dragging on protecting employees from infection.
At the same time, Amazon has benefitted from a surge in online purchases during the pandemic as Americans stayed home due to “shelter-in-place” orders and many bricks-and-mortar stores were shuttered. As a result, its first-quarter sales jumped 26% to $75.5 billion.
Amazon’s steps to protect workers provided a “façade of compliance,” claims the lawsuit, filed on behalf of the workers by advocacy groups Towards Justice, Public Justice and Make the Road New York as well as the Terrell Marshall Law Group.
“The company has also relied on purposeful miscommunication with workers, sloppy contact tracing, and the culture of workplace fear it has instilled at JFK8 to ensure it can maintain productivity while reducing costs,” the lawsuit alleges.
In response, Amazon said it’s spent $4 billion from April 1 to June 1 on COVID-related initiatives. The company also said it offered unlimited time away from work for employees between March to May 1, and since May 1 has provided leave for at-risk workers or those who need to care for children or family members.
That funding includes “over $800 million in the first half of this year on safety measures like temperature checks, masks, gloves, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, extended pay and benefits options, testing and more,” spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said in an emailed statement. “We are saddened by the tragic impact COVID-19 has had on communities across the globe, including on some Amazon team members and their family and friends.”
The lawsuit claims that warehouse workers simply don’t have time to clean their workstations or make it to the bathroom to wash their hands, a recommended action from the CDC to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The lawsuit claims that Staten Island worker Barbara Chandler was infected with the coronavirus while at the warehouse, where workers were “explicitly or implicitly encouraged to continue attending work and prevented from adequately washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations.”
The lawsuit claims, “Chandler brought the virus home to her family and less than a month later, she awoke to find her cousin with whom she lived dead in their bathroom, after he had become ill with COVID-19 symptoms.