Amazon.com Inc must face a claim that it failed to protect New York City warehouse workers and their families from COVID-19, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Tuesday while dismissing the bulk of the workers’ 2020 lawsuit.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York reversed a federal judge’s ruling that said only the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had the power to review complaints about Amazon’s workplace safety practices.
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OSHA may have expertise in worker safety, but the legal issues posed in Amazon’s case “are within the conventional experience of judges,” Circuit Judge William Nardini wrote for the court.
The 2nd Circuit, however, upheld the dismissal of other claims, including that Amazon created a “public nuisance” by failing to stop the spread of COVID-19 and did not properly provide payments for sick leave.
The case involves workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island that employs about 5,000 people and had become the company’s first unionized facility earlier this year. The union campaign was spurred by concerns over worker safety amid the pandemic.
On Tuesday, workers at an Amazon warehouse near Albany, New York, voted nearly two to one to reject a union campaign in the company’s fourth union election this year.
Karla Gilbride, a lawyer with nonprofit Public Justice who represents the Staten Island workers, said Tuesday’s ruling makes clear that employers who “treat workers as expendable and put profits over people” can he held accountable in court.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. The company has denied wrongdoing and said it took various steps to protect warehouse workers.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Brooklyn federal court, said Amazon had made the Staten Island warehouse a “place of danger” by forcing employees to work at “dizzying speeds.” That prevented them from socially distancing, washing their hands and sanitizing their work spaces, the workers said.
One employee, Barbara Chandler, said she tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020 and likely spread it to several members of her household, including a cousin who died.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan dismissed the entire lawsuit in 2020. The 2nd Circuit on Tuesday reversed with respect to the workers’ claim that Amazon violated a New York state workplace safety law by failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York Editing Alexia Garamfalvi and Matthew Lewis)