California subpoenas Amazon over worker safety in pandemic
Action follows months of informal communications over policies
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Monday asked a judge to order Amazon to comply with subpoenas his office issued nearly four months ago as part of an investigation into how the company is protecting workers from the coronavirus at its facilities.
Becerra said the online sales giant hasn’t provided enough information on its coronavirus safety steps and the status of infections and deaths at its shipping facilities across California. The attorney general is President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be the first Latino to lead the Health and Human Services Department.
“We’re investigating because we got reports, information, complaints about conditions, incidents,” Becerra said. While the investigation is ongoing, “we believe that it merits looking into Amazon’s protocols, practices, based on information that we have received.”
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment left through an email that the company provides for members of the media.
Becerra wants a Sacramento County Superior Court judge to find that the company hasn’t given specific details on its coronavirus prevention efforts in response to subpoenas issued Aug. 19, including its sick leave policies and cleaning procedures. He also wants access to the company’s raw data on the number of infections and deaths at its facilities in California.
“We urgently need to know about complaints made by Amazon associates to the company about working conditions, potential retaliation taken against employees who raise these workplace safety concerns,” he said. “We don’t have time to drag our feet…our state finds itself in the thick of this pandemic.”
Seeking safety data
His office wants to know which facilities have the highest infection rates, how the company defines which employees have been diagnosed with the virus, any contacts it has had with health officials, and documents related to any lawsuits or investigations by either individuals or other agencies.
Becerra routinely declines comment on ongoing investigations, but called a virtual news conference to criticize Amazon for making billions of dollars during the pandemic as consumers increasingly turn to online purchases over brick-and-mortar stores — profits that he said are built on the labour of employees who put themselves at risk.
The company projects sales will top US$100 billion in the final quarter of 2020, and in the third quarter “its revenues soared while its profits tripled compared to 2019,” Becerra said.
“While Amazon continues to operate profitably, it has been less than forthcoming about its operations and its practices to protect its workers.”
He said the subpoenas followed months of informal communications with the company over its health and safety policies.
The company has missed several chances to comply, he said, but he said the investigation is continuing and he has made no decision on whether its practices are adequate — in part because he has not received enough information from the company.
The probe began last spring, his office said in seeking the court order, and officials first sent Amazon a letter in May seeking information. Becerra’s court filing lists media reports about three Amazon workers’ deaths, but said the company mentioned none of them in its responses.
Becerra’s office first publicly disclosed the investigation in a court filing in July in a San Francisco Superior Court case in which an employee accused the company of not doing enough to safeguard staff, such as requiring social distancing and cleaning equipment.
Cal-OSHA, more formally the known as Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health have also launched investigations, according to that court filing. Officials in other states have also launched investigations into Amazon workers’ complaints.