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Amazon Under Fire Over Covid Probe

Amazon has landed in hot water with a public official—again—over questions about safety, sanitation and sick leave standards at its warehouses and distribution centers amid the worsening Covid crisis.

On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the filing of a petition in the Sacramento County Superior Court requesting that Amazon be compelled to comply with outstanding investigative subpoenas regarding conditions at its facilities. Becerra, who was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to the post of Health and Human Services secretary last week, alleged that Amazon failed to provide adequate information about its company protocols in containing the spread of Covid throughout its workplaces in the state, as requested as a part of an ongoing investigation.

The California Department of Justice issued its first investigative subpoenas on Aug. 19, after months of less formal communication about the company’s workplace health and safety measures. As infection rates spiked and death tolls rose throughout the nation’s most-populous state, however, The DOJ sought more details about Amazon’s coronavirus prevention efforts, especially with regard to sick leave and cleaning procedures. The department also requested data about the number of infections and deaths that have taken place thus far at Amazon’s California facilities.

The tech titan has “failed to adequately respond, missing several additional opportunities to comply” with the request for more concrete insights, the Attorney General’s office said. Amazon has seen record profits throughout the crisis, it added, and yet the company has been “unwilling to provide to the California Department of Justice the information needed to adequately demonstrate that it takes the health and well-being of its workers seriously.”

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“Amazon has made billions during this pandemic relying on the labor of essential workers,” Becerra said, adding that its workforce has put itself at risk in order to keep the business humming throughout a crisis that has sidelined many in the retail sector.

“It’s critical to know if these workers are receiving the protections on the job that they are entitled to under the law,” he said, and “time is of the essence” when it comes to getting answers. “Amazon has delayed responding adequately to our investigative requests long enough,” Becerra added. “We’re seeking a court order to compel Amazon to comply fully with our investigative subpoenas.”

Amazon rushed to defend its efforts to protect its workers on Monday, with a spokesperson telling Sourcing Journal, “We’re puzzled by the Attorney General’s sudden rush to court because we’ve been working cooperatively for months and their claims of noncompliance with their demands don’t line up with the facts.

“The bottom line is that we’re a leader in providing Covid-19 safety measures for our employees,” they added, touting an investment of billions of dollars in equipment and technology, including building on-site testing for employees and providing personal protective equipment. “We encourage anyone to compare our speed and actions in this area to any other major employer.”

In early October, amid an outbreak of infections within its operations across the nation, Amazon gave a “conservative” estimation that 19,800 front-line workers at both Amazon and Whole Foods who were employed between March 1 and Sept. 19 had contracted the virus, out of about 1.37 million total employees. Despite public outcry from members of its warehouse staff this spring about the conditions that ultimately led to thousands of workers falling ill and dying, the e-commerce titan touted the figure as “42 percent lower” than the number it expected to report at the time.

Following the revelation, Amazon said that it had released the statistics in a bid to encourage other large organizations to become more transparent. “We hope sharing this data and our learnings will encourage others to follow, and will prove useful as states make decisions about reopening public facilities and employers consider whether and how to bring people back to work,” the company wrote in a blog post.

Amazon isn’t the only company to earn some side-eye from the Attorney General’s office during the pandemic, which has hit metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and the Bay Area especially hard.

In June, Becerra urged big-box chain Walmart to step up its efforts to protect California’s workers and the public by augmenting its paid leave policy. Workers were feeling pressured to continue working even if they were ill, he said, putting the public at risk of coming into contact with infected individuals. “If we want to save lives and protect our economy, we’re all going to have to do our part,” Becerra said at the time, noting that “big corporations like Walmart” have a duty to implement policies that “reflect the seriousness of the crisis.”

Amid the virus’ second wave, the Attorney General’s office pushed the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to adopt an emergency temporary standard aimed at protecting workers across California from Covid exposure in November. The new measure includes directives on identifying safety hazards or conditions that would put workers at risk of infection, emergency response tactics to respond to potential exposures, communication standards to inform workers about testing, systems for employees to report exposures without fear of retaliation.