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New York Court Dismisses Amazon Workers’ COVID-19 Health And Safety Claims

Published Thursday, November 12, 2020
by Evandro Gigante, Arielle E. Kobetz and Heylee Bernstein/Law & The Workplace
New York Court Dismisses Amazon Workers’ COVID-19 Health And Safety Claims

(BROOKLYN, NEW YORK) - On November 2nd, the Eastern District of New York issued a notable decision regarding an employer’s compliance with Federal and State Public Health Law during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

This is not the only case of its kind during the pandemic and it is certainly not expected that it will be the last as employers should be prepared to defend claims that they did not follow the governing health protocols or otherwise ensure the health and safety of their Employees.

The court’s ruling is notable for many reasons, including insofar as it recognizes that determining whether an employer complied with Workplace Safety Standards is best left to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the Federal agency that’s suited to analyzing such issues.

The case is also a reminder that New York’s Workers’ Compensation Law provides a strong defense to claims of workplace injuries that were allegedly the result of an employer’s negligence, including when it comes to implementing the health and safety requirements that employers must follow during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Here’s the relevant background:

In Palmer, et al. v. Amazon.Com, Inc., et al., case number 20-cv-2468 (E.D.N.Y. 2020), Employees working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center on Staten Island, New York and members of their households, brought claims against the on-line retailer.

The plaintiffs asserted Amazon’s actions constituted a public nuisance and it failed to provide a safe workplace under Federal and New York COVID-19-Workplace Guidance.

The plaintiffs also alleged the employer failed to timely pay New York State COVID-19 Sick Leave.

Against the background of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Court noted the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendations that employers (i) take steps to reduce transmission of the virus at the workplace, (ii) develop flexible leave policies, and (iii) reduce face-to-face contact between employees.  

Likewise, New York State guidance requires employers to, among other things, operate at reduced capacity, stagger shifts and tasks to minimize congestion, and conduct regular cleaning.

The New York State COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave Law also requires large employers like Amazon to provide at least two weeks of Paid Sick Leave to Employees subject to a COVID-19 Quarantine Order.

In this case, plaintiffs argued “Amazon’s productivity requirements prevent(ed) Employees from engaging in basic hygiene, sanitization, and social distancing(,)” causing Employees to skip hand washing, skip sanitizing workplaces, and operate in a way that prevented social distancing in the facility.  Plaintiffs further claimed the air conditioning at the facility was only available in certain areas, preventing proper social distancing, and Amazon’s Employee contact tracing was inadequate.”

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