At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, the governor issued an Executive Order that shut down all non-essential businesses. Amazon was found to be an essential business and was allowed to stay open. In May of 2020, during NY State’s phased re-opening, industry specific guidance was issued for all businesses that were permitted to operate.
One of Amazon’s facilities in Staten Island, NY is called JFK8. It covers 840,000 square feet, operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and can employ up to 3,500 people at a time. Following the COVID shutdown and subsequent re-opening, Amazon workers and their families filed a lawsuit in Federal court. One of the claims in the suit involved Amazon’s alleged breach of duty to protect the health and safety of their employees under the New York Labor Law. The plaintiffs argued that employees at JFK8 were forced to work under conditions that prevented social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing of work spaces that added to the spread of COVID-19.
One of the defenses Amazon used in their motion to dismiss the lawsuit involved the Workers’ Compensation Law (WCL). Amazon argued that the WCL was the plaintiffs’ only remedy to address their claim. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the issue involved whether Amazon provided “reasonable and adequate protection to workers,” as required by the Labor Law. The Court pointed out that the WCL’s sole remedy is the recovery of benefits and does not extend to injunctive relief.
The same concerns over Amazon’s safety practices that resulted in this lawsuit also lead to an effort to unionize its workers. In April 2022, the workers at JFK8 became the first Amazon workers in the country to vote in favor of joining the Amazon Labor Union.