A lawsuit targeting Amazon over an alleged lack of Covid-19 protections at its Staten Island facility has been dismissed by a US District Judge, who said the issues should be raised with the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In a complaint filed in June, some Amazon workers at its Staten Island warehouse alleged the company has erected “a façade of compliance” to meet public health guidelines while simultaneously pressuring employees to report to work under unsafe conditions.
In a decision dated November 1, Judge Brian Cogan wrote that the workers’ claims and proposed injunctive relief “go to the heart of OSHA’s expertise and discretion.”
“This case concerns state and federal guidance addressing workplace safety during a pandemic for which there is no immediate end in sight. Regulating in the age of Covid-19 is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter fraught with medical and scientific uncertainty. There is room for significant disagreement as to the necessity or wisdom of any particular workplace policy or practice,” Cogan added. “Courts are not expert in public health or workplace safety matters, and lack the training, expertise, and resources to oversee compliance with evolving industry guidance.”
The plaintiffs have not made an application to OSHA, according to Cogan’s decision. CNN Business has reached out to OSHA for comment.
“The Court’s decision to grant Amazon’s motion to dismiss the claims of workers at the company’s JFK8 facility is devastating for the health and safety of Amazon workers nationwide,” said the legal team for the plaintiffs, Make the Road New York, Public Justice, Terrell Marshall Law Group, and Towards Justice, in a statement to CNN Business. “The Court’s deference to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration should be very concerning to anyone who cares about the health of American workers, given that OSHA has been virtually AWOL throughout this crisis.” The team said they are weighing an appeal of the decision.
In a statement, Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon spokesperson, said: “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our employees, which is why at the onset of the pandemic we moved quickly to make more than 150 COVID-19 related process changes. And, we continue to innovate, learn, and improve the measures we have in place to protect our teams.”
OSHA is responsible for educating and protecting workers during the pandemic, but it has taken few actions to improve working conditions or to hold employers accountable during the pandemic, according to reporting from CNN and others. A report from October by the National Employment Law Project found that just 2% of Covid-related whistleblower complaints had been investigated and resolved.
“Judge Cogan’s decision suggests he has no understanding of how OSHA works or the dire situation facing workers who may be exposed to the Covid-19,” said David Michaels, a professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and former head of OSHA during the Obama administration in an email to CNN Business.
“OSHA is only inspecting a tiny fraction of workplaces where workers have reported uncontrolled exposure, and, even if OSHA did inspect, OSHA has no standard to measure compliance against because Labor Secretary Gene Scalia has refused to issue an Emergency Standard for Covid exposure,” said Michaels.
Warehouse safety has become an area of great scrutiny as Amazon’s business has surged even as the broader economy has been mired in a pandemic-induced recession. This lawsuit is just one of the ways some workers have been vocal about the company’s alleged inadequate approach to safeguarding its facilities since the start of the pandemic.
Last month, Amazon said 19,816 of its front-line US employees at Amazon and Whole Foods had tested positive or been presumed positive for the coronavirus, shedding light for the first time on how its workforce has been impacted after having repeatedly resisted sharing comprehensive data with the public and with its own workers.
Amazon has said it has taken a variety of steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including making more than 150 “process changes” to its operations to enhance safety. More recently, that includes rolling out on-site virus testing.