NY attorney general calls out Amazon’s ‘inadequate’ COVID-19 measures and ‘chilling’ labor policies

The New York attorney general’s office reportedly sent a sternly-worded letter to Amazon telling the company that the measures it has taken regarding the COVID-19 pandemic “are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” and firing outspoken workers sends “a threatening message to other employees.”

The letter, not yet published but obtained by NPR (I’ve asked the NY AG for confirmation of the contents), is only informational and does not amount to legal action. But the wording is strong enough to suggest that legal action may be the next step.

While we continue to investigate, the information so far available to us raises concerns that Amazon’s health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

These are precisely the concerns brought up by many warehouse workers over the last two months, including Chris Smalls, who was fired in March after protesting the conditions at the facility where he worked.

Amazon says Smalls was not fired for riling up the workers. Yet reportedly at a meeting attended by Jeff Bezos, the company’s General Counsel suggested making him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” before following with “our usual talking points about worker safety.”

(Amazon would not confirm or deny those comments took place when TechCrunch asked about them at the time, but did provide a quoted apology by the person who may or may not have said them.)

Two more outspoken employees were fired two weeks later for “repeatedly violating internal policies.” Naturally the usual talking points followed.

The NY AG’s letter said the office is looking into “cases of potential illegal retaliation,” and addresses this pattern as follows:

This Office has learned that many workers are fearful about speaking out about their concerns following the termination of Mr. Smalls’ employment. This is a particularly dangerous message to send during a pandemic, when chilling worker speech about health and safety practices could literally be a matter of life and death.

Amazon routinely protests that it is a paragon when it comes to labor, but is just as routinely contradicted by workers, like Smalls, who have experienced the reality of working at its warehouses.

Amazon issued its “usual talking points” to NPR as a response to the story, saying: “We encourage anyone to compare the health and safety measures Amazon has taken, and the speed of their implementation, during this crisis with other retailers.” The attorney general seems prepared to take the company up on that invitation.