Amazon sued New York attorney general Letitia James on Friday for preventing her from bringing safety charges against the company at two of its New York City warehouses.
The company also asked the court to force Ms. James to state that she has no authority to regulate workplace safety or investigate allegations of retaliation against employees who protest their working conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Amazon said Ms. James’s office was investigating pandemic safety concerns raised by employees at its large fulfillment center on Staten Island and in a delivery depot in Queens. It said Ms. James “threatened to sue Amazon” if she did not agree to her demands, including subsidizing bus travel, reducing labor productivity requirements, worsening profits, and reinstating Christian Smalls, who was laid off this spring Workers at Amazon.
Mr Smalls has said he was turned away for leading a protest at the Staten Island warehouse. Amazon said he was fired for going to the construction site to protest, despite being on paid quarantine leave after being exposed to a colleague who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Mr. Smalls became the most visible case in the clash between workers and Amazon, which saw consumer orders skyrocket. As the pandemic spread across the country, many Amazon employees said the company missed the opportunity early on to provide better protection against Covid-19.
Amazon has vigorously defended its security measures and has gone on the offensive against its critics. In notes from an internal executive meeting, Amazon’s top attorney called Mr Smalls inarticulately and discussed strategies to make him the face of the workers’ organization.
Apr. 12, 2021, 7:34 p.m. ET
In its 64-page complaint, Amazon said its security measures “go far beyond what is required by law,” arguing that federal law, rather than state law enforced by the New York Attorney General, has the primary oversight over safety concerns in the workplace.
“The OAG lacks the legal authority it wants to exercise against Amazon,” the company said.
Amazon declined to comment beyond filing.
Ms. James said in a statement the suit was “nothing more than a sad attempt to divert attention from the facts and shirk responsibility for failing to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus.”
She said her office is reviewing the legal options. “Let me be clear: we are not going to be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies who make profits on the health and safety of working people,” she said.
James Brudney, professor of labor law at Fordham University, said it was unusual for companies to file the kind of anticipatory lawsuit against Amazon.
“You want to fight,” he said of Amazon. “You always want to fight.”
Mr Brudney said that in many cases federal law anticipates state safety at work, although there are exceptions that Ms. James could argue.
“It seems reasonable to see if the state can prove its case,” he said. He added that federal oversight had “horribly and tragically failed” to create and enforce pandemic safety in the workplace, which is why states had stepped in to fill the loopholes.
Much of Amazon’s complaints describe responding to a pandemic, including setting up temperature checks at entrances, providing masks, and providing free on-site testing. According to his calculations, 1.15 percent of workers on the New York Front had tested positive or were found positive for the coronavirus, about half the rate for the general population in the state.
The complaint was also quoted from an email documenting the unannounced inspection of the Staten Island warehouse by the New York Sheriff’s Office on March 30, which found that Amazon “appears to be exceeding current compliance requirements “.