Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Palo Alto — Amazon.com told employees at a New York warehouse, where workers have sued and gone on strike over safety concerns, that they will not be punished for insufficient productivity or extra time washing their hands.

In a message Amazon sent to employees and posted in bathrooms at the Staten Island facility, the e-commerce giant said workers would not be disciplined for falling short of quotas based on how many tasks they complete each hour. Time spent on safety measures like handwashing also will not be counted against them under Amazon’s “time off task” policy, which limits the number of unproductive minutes allowed in their day.

The company said that the more lenient policy, instituted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had been in place since mid-March.

Amazon’s legal team shared the message on Monday with the judge handling a lawsuit, filed by warehouse employees and family members, that claims the company’s “oppressive and dangerous” policies have worsened Covid-19 risks. Jason Schwartz, an attorney representing Amazon, wrote that the company’s policies were already clear to workers, but that it reiterated the message “in an abundance of caution”.

The plaintiffs disputed that Amazon had already told workers about this. In a declaration also filed Monday, employee Derrick Palmer said that before that morning’s e-mail he had not received any communication from the company about such a policy change.

“I have continued to work as fast as I did before the outbreak of Covid-19, and I have continued to do things like rush back to my work station after breaks or skip trips to the bathroom to wash my hands, in order to keep my rate up and to limit my time off task,” he wrote.

Amazon has denied wrongdoing. Lisa Levandowski, a company spokesperson, declined to comment on pending litigation. The largest US internet retailer has said that it’s made over 150 process updates to protect employees, and expects to spend more than $800m on coronavirus safety measures including masks, hand sanitiser, thermal cameras, and additional handwashing stations.

The company also provided the court a list of talking points which it said was given to managers earlier this year so they could inform employees of the more lenient Covid policy. The document specified that it was “for verbal use only”.

“Amazon is trying to have it both ways — to say that they had a policy protecting workers without those workers actually knowing about it,” David Seligman, the executive director of non-profit Towards Justice, said.

Seligman, whose organisation brought the lawsuit along with fellow advocacy groups Public Justice and Make the Road New York, said Monday’s message from Amazon was a “tremendous victory”. The ongoing lawsuit accuses Amazon of “purposeful miscommunication with workers” and “sloppy contact tracing”, as well as a “culture of workplace fear”.


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