News Coronavirus watch16 Oct 2020

US:Amazon warehouse workers file lawsuit on Prime Day pandemic protection

| 16 Oct 2020

Amazon.com has reinstated dangerous warehouse productivity quotas despite telling a judge that it was suspending them during the pandemic, workers said in a court filing.

“Amazon has not been honest and forthcoming,” employees at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, told the judge handling their lawsuit, which claims the company’s “oppressive and dangerous” policies have violated public-nuisance law and exacerbated COVID-19 hazards, according to an article by US-based publication Claims Journal.

While Amazon has said that employee safety is its top priority, employees at several facilities in different states claim their well-being takes a back seat to quickly shipping customers’ orders.

Prime Day

In their filing, the plaintiffs claim that in the lead-up to ‘Prime Day’ Amazon’s self-created, labour-intensive annual promotional holiday that started Tuesday and ends Wednesday, the company has once again been pressuring employees about productivity, and warning them that slowness could get them terminated. One Staten Island employee received “verbal coaching” from a manager for falling short, and management notified staff on a white board that “productivity feedback” was being restored, according to one worker’s account included in the filing.

Amazon have acknowledged that they are reinstating performance quotas and said workers still have adequate time to wash their hands and take other precautions.

“We have reinstated a portion of our process where a fraction of employees, less than 5% on average, may receive coaching for improvement as a result of extreme outliers in performance,” Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said. “All of our measures continue to provide additional time for associates to practice social distancing, wash their hands and clean their workstations whenever needed.”

Prime Day has become the unofficial starting point of the holiday shopping season, which will look vastly different this year as pandemic-wary shoppers will avoid physical stores and large crowds. About half of shoppers plan to do most or all their shopping online, according to a Harris Poll conducted with Bloomberg, a figure that will strain Amazon’s warehouses and delivery stations.

Amazon has faced criticism as it has attempted to remain open through the pandemic and hire enough people to meet surging demand from a slew of newly minted online shoppers. Its vast network of warehouses has become a lifeline for people looking to avoid stores, but workers risk getting infected and potentially bringing the disease home. Last week, the California Department of Industrial Relations fined Amazon $1,870 for failing to train workers at two southern California warehouses on how to reduce COVID-19 exposure, Claims Journal reported.

Time off

The company has said that it has updated more than 150 of its processes to protect its employees working through the pandemic, including additional paid time off, cleaning, mask distribution and social distancing, and is ramping up an in-house COVID-19 testing program.

On 1 October, Amazon disclosed that almost 20,000 of its US employees have tested positive for COVID-19, while saying their infection rate was lower than the general population’s. In legal filings, the company has denied wrongdoing, called the New York lawsuit an effort to “exploit the pandemic,” and said that under federal law the workers’ claims should be brought to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rather than the court.

Productivity quotas have been a long-running concern at Amazon. In 2018, Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota organized and rallied to demand more lenience during the Ramadan fast, which that year overlapped with the lead-up to Prime Day. Back then, collective protest by US Amazon employees was uncommon. This year, COVID-19 concerns have inspired a wave of walkouts and demonstrations, beginning with one in March at the Staten Island warehouse.

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