Palmer v. Amazon
This is a case against Amazon on behalf of workers and their families at JFK8, the company’s Staten Island fulfillment center, who have been subjected to working conditions that have failed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the facility and in the workers’ communities.
On June 3, 2020, Public Justice joined Make the Road New York, Terrell Marshall Law Group, and Towards Justice to file the lawsuit against Amazon, on behalf of three Staten Island warehouse workers, and three members of their households, demanding the company change its facility conditions and leave policies, in addition to implementing contact tracing procedures after workers fall ill.
The complaint filed alleges Amazon’s operations at JFK8 constitute a public nuisance because they unreasonably interfere with the common public right to public health and that Amazon’s actions constitute a breach of Amazon’s duty to provide its workers with a reasonably safe workplace. The workers feared for their health and lives due to the facility’s failure to follow CDC guidelines and New York State public health guidance on preventing the spread of the virus. Workers have seen that Amazon’s work and leave policies incentivize symptomatic and other exposed workers to come to work and not take proper health and safety precautions during their shifts. The suit asks the court to force Amazon to comply with CDC guidelines, state public health orders, and the guidance of health professionals. It also seeks back pay for paid quarantine leave denied to workers.
The JFK8 facility is 855,000 square feet in size, employs 5,000 workers, and serves as the gateway to New York City—Amazon’s single largest market. It is also a facility where Amazon workers have organized multiple walkouts, after which one worker was fired in retaliation, leading Amazon Vice President Tim Bray to resign in protest over the working conditions.
In the lawsuit, workers listed dangerous Amazon work and leave policies at the facility, including a productivity feedback policy that discourages workers from social distancing and performing basic hygiene protocols like frequent hand-washing and sanitization, a refusal to change operations to ensure proper sanitization of workstations and high-touch surfaces, a failure to clearly communicate to workers about what they should do if they begin experiencing symptoms, and denial of access to prompt and full payment of quarantine leave benefits, as required by New York law, which discouraged workers from taking leave while sick.
In the complaint, workers and their family members sought a number of urgent changes, including a more transparent leave policy that assured sick or exposed workers who needed to stay home that their jobs were not at risk; prompt and full payment of quarantine leave in accordance with New York’s Paid Family Leave Law; modifications to Amazon’s productivity feedback policies to ensure that workers could practice social distancing and basic hygiene protocols without fear of discipline; and more thorough disinfection of the facility. The lawsuit also asks Amazon to follow CDC guidance for contact tracing, instead of relying on its own surveillance footage to determine who was exposed, or delegate contact tracing responsibilities to a trained professional.
The lawsuit filed is among the first seeking to secure injunctive relief to protect frontline workers from the coronavirus, following a suit by a Smithfield Foods worker and worker organization in Milan, Mo., who were also represented by Public Justice and Towards Justice.
Plaintiffs include JFK8 worker Barbara Chandler and her son Luis. Barbara tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020 and several members of her household subsequently became sick. These household members include Luis as well as a cousin who died in April after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The group of plaintiffs also includes Make the Road New York member Derrick Palmer and his partner Kendia Mesidor. Kendia refrained from visiting her dying father at home in the last weeks of his life because she believed Derrick’s work for Amazon might have given them the virus and she feared spreading it to her parents. JFK8 employee Benita Rouse and her son Alexander, with whom she shares a small apartment, are also plaintiffs in the suit.
The case drew support from New York Attorney General Letitia James, as well as Congressional Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Barbara Lee (CA). Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) also signed onto a brief in support of the workers.
In July 2020, Amazon announced it would suspend its productivity feedback policy “during the COVID-19 pandemic” in order to ensure that workers could engage in proper “social distancing, hand washing [and] sanitizing work stations” without fear of reprisal. The legal team declared this a victory for public health, withdrawing their motion for emergency injunctive relief. Yet on October 7, 2020, despite the fact that there was still no end to the pandemic in sight, Amazon did an about face and reinstated its productivity feedback policy. The reasons had nothing to do with health or safety – Amazon simply wanted to increase productivity in advance of its “Prime Day” sales event and the peak holiday season.
On November 2, 2020, a New York federal judge granted Amazon’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In the decision, the Court showed a concerning level of deference to OSHA, which has failed to regulate corporations and take action against unsafe workplace conditions during the pandemic.
On November 24, 2020, the Palmer v. Amazon legal team appealed the district court’s dismissal of the claims on behalf of their clients.
On January 11, 2021, the legal team filed their opening brief in the Second Circuit.
- Karla Gilbride
Frank Kearl and Elizabeth Joynes Jordan of Make the Road New York
Amanda Steiner, Beth Terrell, Blythe Chandler, Erika Nusser, Ryan Tack-Hooper, and Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group
Juno Turner, David Seligman, and Valerie Collins of Towards Justice