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California demands that Amazon comply with COVID-19 investigation

Workers in reflective vests and masks move boxes at an Amazon facility.
People work at the Hawthorne Amazon warehouse facility. California’s attorney general on Monday asked a judge to order Amazon to comply with an investigation.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

California is taking Amazon to court to force the online retail giant to cooperate with a months-long investigation into whether the company is doing enough to protect its workers from the coronavirus, Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said Monday.

Becerra said his office had asked a Sacramento County Superior Court judge to order Amazon to comply with outstanding investigative subpoenas, alleging the firm has not adequately responded to requests for information.

The attorney general’s office issued the subpoenas in August as part of an investigation into Amazon’s protocols for protecting employees from COVID-19 and the status of virus cases at the company’s facilities throughout California.

“Amazon has made billions during this pandemic relying on the labor of essential workers. Their workers get the job done while putting themselves at risk,” Becerra said in a statement Monday. “It’s critical to know if these workers are receiving the protections on the job that they are entitled to under the law.”

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An Amazon representative released a statement that challenged Becerra’s action.

“We’re puzzled by the Attorney General’s sudden rush to court because we’ve been working cooperatively for months and their claims of noncompliance with their demands don’t line up with the facts,” the statement said.

The company added said it has invested billions of dollars in equipment and technology, including building on-site testing for employees and providing personal protective equipment.

“The bottom line is that we’re a leader in providing COVID-19 safety measures for our employees,” the statement said. “We encourage anyone to compare our speed and actions in this area to any other major employer.”

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With COVID-19-related deaths topping 21,000 in California, state health officials are directing more and more brick-and-mortar businesses to restrict operations, forcing many people to rely again on internet purchases.

Amazon’s growth has been turbocharged since the pandemic was declared in March. The company added nearly half a million new employees this year, many of whom were hired to work in warehouses that dot rural communities and suburbs across the country. But with that growth came worker safety concerns.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, levied $1,870 in fines on Amazon in early October for COVID-19 safety violations. Labor advocates said the fines came months too late, and were too small to motivate the company to do better.

Other essential businesses that continued to operate even as much of California was forced to shut down due to the pandemic have faced similar criticisms from workers. Grocery stores and manufacturers in California that have seen large outbreaks of infections too were hit with fines by Cal/OSHA.

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Retail workers as well as food delivery workers said they were not given adequate personal protective equipment or support from their employers, even as they faced a higher risk of exposure to the virus. They protested, demanding more protections and hazard pay.

Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of labor advocacy group Warehouse Worker Resource Center, which helped workers file safety complaints with Cal/OSHA in the spring, said he has heard repeatedly from workers that safety protocols are enforced inconsistently or poorly communicated to workers.

“Amazon has a consistent pattern of trying to block and hide information. This is not the kind of response the second biggest employer in the country should be making,” Kaoosji said.

In some departments, warehouse workers are forced to cluster up to get their job done, yet the company maintains the same staffing levels and speed of work, he said.

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Amazon officials said in October that its safety protocols, including testing, tracing, cleaning and social distancing, meant their “employees are at a very low risk of transmission in the workplace.”

The probe by the attorney general’s office is looking for details about the nature and extent of Amazon’s coronavirus prevention efforts, including an examination of sick leave policies and cleaning procedures.

Becerra’s investigators are also seeking data on the number of infections and COVID-related deaths at some 150 Amazon facilities in California.

The attorney general said during an online news conference Monday that the information sought includes which Amazon facilities have suffered the largest outbreaks, whether the company has been sued by employees over the issue, how many employees have complained about conditions and whether the company has retaliated against any workers who complained.

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Becerra said the request for court intervention was urgent.

“If Amazon can next-day deliver an 85-inch TV, it should be able to deliver to the Department of Justice the straightforward information we officially requested of them nearly four months ago,” Becerra told reporters.

Representatives of Amazon employees have complained for months about working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic and organized a march to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Beverly Hills mansion in October.

The October protest was held a week after Amazon disclosed that nearly 20,000 of its frontline U.S. workers had tested positive or were presumed positive for the coronavirus. However, the online retail firm said at the time that the infection rate of its employees was well below that found in the general U.S. population.

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The march was organized by the Congress of Essential Workers, a group that includes warehouse workers and was founded by former Amazon warehouse manager Chris Smalls, who said he was fired this year for putting together a work stoppage over the company’s response to the pandemic.

The group demanded that Amazon provide employees with protective equipment against the virus as well as cleaning supplies and hazard pay.

Early in the pandemic, workers at eight Amazon facilities in Southern California tested positive in for the virus, including a fulfillment center in San Bernardino, the inbound cross-dock warehouse in Rialto, a delivery center in Hawthorne and a smaller Amazon Prime Now warehouse in the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Facilities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties also reported cases in late March.

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The online retail giant said early in the pandemic that it was taking steps to reduce infection in its facilities, including by increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning, staggering shift times to promote social distancing, and suspending exit screenings to check for stealing because they can cause people to jam together at exits.

Southern California Amazon workers circulated a petition early in the pandemic that said: “Amazon is trying to take precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the fact of the matter is we work with so many people every single day that we are in constant danger.”


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