A Brooklyn-based judge says that courts lack the expertise to address company-specific workplace safety policies.
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Amazon warehouse workers in New York, saying their complaints about the company’s coronavirus response should have been taken to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) instead of the courts.
The Seattle Times notes that the lawsuit, filed in June, accused Amazon of creating a “public nuisance” by refusing to implement proper coronavirus mitigation policies at its JFK8 warehouse.
Amazon, claimed some warehouse employees, maintained a “culture of workplace fear” in which workers are instructed to “work at dizzying speeds, even if doing so prevents them from socially distancing, washing their hands, and sanitizing their work spaces.”
But U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, based out of Brooklyn in New York City, said that OSHA is better positioned to “strike a balance between maintaining some level of operations in conjunction with some level of protective measures.”
“No doubt, shutting down JFK8 completely during the pandemic while continuing to provide employees with pay and benefits would be the best protection against contagion at the workplace,” Cogan wrote, attempting to emphasize the need to balance workers’ safety with corporate profits.
Cogan said that courts typically lack the specialized expertise to address workplace safety and public health issues. He also stated that the case’s unique contours—presumably due to Amazon’s pan-national presence—could lead to similar lawsuits being resolved with conflicting rulings.
“Court-imposed workplace policies could subject the industry to vastly different, costly regulatory schemes in a time of economic crisis,” Judge Cogan wrote.
However, attorneys for the warehouse workers were critical of Cogan’s ruling.
Cogan’s deference to OSHA, the attorneys said, “should be very concerning to anyone who cares about the health of American workers, given that OSHA has been virtually AWOL throughout this crisis.”
But Lisa Levandowski, a spokesperson for Amazon, said the company rapidly evolved its internal policies to effectively manage coronavirus-related workplace hazards.
“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our employees, which is why at the onset of the pandemic we moved quickly to make more than 150 COVID-19 related process changes,” Levandowski said in a statement.
Nevertheless, workers’ advocates have maintained that Amazon has anything but its lower-level employees’ best interests in mind.
The advocacy groups backing the lawsuit, including Towards Justice, Public Justice, and Make the Road New York—all three of which supported workers in their case against Amazon—said Cogan’s decision is “devastating.”
The decision, they said, “frees Amazon to continue to discourage workers to take adequate time to wash their hands at workstations, to fail to promptly pay for quarantine leave in line with some state laws, to undergo ‘contact tracing’ that doesn’t include the most basic steps in tracing worker contacts, and to continue failing to clearly communicate to workers about what they should do if they begin experiencing symptoms or believe they’ve been exposed.”