Amazon Wins Dismissal of NY Attorney General Worker Safety Suit

Early Tuesday, a New York state appeals court dismissed state Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit alleging Amazon failed to adequately protect thousands of workers in their New York facilities against the spread of COVID-19.

Amazon FulfillmentPhoto Credit: Shutterstock

The Appellate Division in Manhattan stated federal law preempted James’ claims that Amazon violated state labor law by retaliating against two employees, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who protested against working conditions.

It also said James’ effort to require Amazon to comply with state COVID-19 workplace guidelines was pointless, because the state has since withdrawn the guidance that she sought to enforce.

James had sued Amazon in February 2021 over its alleged failure to provide adequate health and safety protections to workers at its JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island and DBK1 distribution center in Queens, both located in New York City.

A state trial judge rejected Amazon’s bid to dismiss the case in October 2021.

But the appeals court said protests against unsafe working conditions “relate to the workers’ participation in concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection,” and were protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

The four-judge panel also said issuing a ruling could pose a “substantial risk of interference” with the National Labor Relations Board, which is considering essentially the same allegations of retaliation.

Amazon fired Smalls for allegedly violating a paid quarantine to lead a March 2020 protest, and gave Palmer a written warning for allegedly violating social distancing rules.

Smalls and Palmer later formed the Amazon Labor Union, which workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted by a roughly 5-4 margin to join, according to results released last month. Turnout for the vote was approximately 58%.

The close vote was a huge victory for U.S. organized labor, which has seen union membership fall by about half since the boom of the early 1980s. Amazon has been largely viewed as a threat to workers and their rights because of its employee practices and reach across a myriad of industries.

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