A federal judge in New York has dismissed a lawsuit against Amazon over an alleged lack of protections from coronavirus. The lawsuit concerns employees at one of Amazon’s facilities located in Staten Island. The judge said the issues in the suit should be raised with the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The lawsuit dates back to June. Workers claimed that Amazon was only putting on a “facade of compliance” with local health regulations concerning coronavirus. In reality, they claimed, the company was pressuring its employees to work in unsafe conditions. Judge Brian Cogan wrote that the plaintiffs’ claims properly belong with OSHA, which has more expertise in such matters.
Cogan also noted that the pandemic has no end in sight. Regulations over health and safety are fraught with medical and scientific uncertainty. That makes it difficult to assess the wisdom of any particular workplace policy or rule. In other words, in such uncertain times, it’s hard to judge whether Amazon’s business practices are compliant. Courts are not the proper forum for issues of workplace safety, which require the skill set of OSHA.
The legal team for the plaintiffs called the dismissal “devastating” for Amazon workers nationwide. They accused the court of disregarding public health and safety in deferring to OSHA. Additionally, the plaintiffs said they are considering an appeal of the decision. As of November 1, the date of the dismissal, the plaintiffs had not reached out to OSHA.
For its part, Amazon claims that it has implemented about 150 workplace safety changes in light of coronavirus. Since the onset of the pandemic, the company says, it has committed to its employees’ health concerns. The company pledged to innovate and improve safety measures moving forward.
Critics have complained about the inaction of OSHA during the pandemic. According to one report, only 2% of worker complaints over coronavirus had been investigated and resolved. OSHA is responsible for protecting the health and safety of American workers.
Amazon has come under attack in recent months for its business tactics surrounding coronavirus. The company has grown tremendously during the pandemic, while other retailers have closed or cut back. With arguably more business than ever, many employees have found fault with the online retailer. In October, Amazon itself claimed that almost 20,000 workers had tested positive or were presumed positive for the virus.
Still, the dismissal shows just how complicated litigation is a surrounding coronavirus. As the judge correctly noted, there’s a lot of uncertainty over the virus. That extends from the medical and scientific communities to local, state, and federal governments grappling with how to control coronavirus. Amazon made the argument that courts are simply not the best-equipped arbiters of whether safety measures are proper. And the judge agreed that OSHA is more well-suited to answer such questions.
Cases like these show the importance of using litigation tactics to bring an early end to problematic lawsuits. It’s inevitable that lawsuits will continue to target businesses as coronavirus rages. There’s a good chance that fall and winter will bring more spikes in the number of virus cases. That will potentially open the door to a wave of lawsuits complaining of hazardous and unsafe working conditions. And you don’t have to run a business the size of Amazon to feel the pinch. Small- and medium-sized companies may be targeted in similar lawsuits in the near future.
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