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Amazon Hit With Discrimination Complaint

The New York State Division of Human Rights (DHR) accused Amazon of discriminating against workers with disabilities and pregnant employees.

The privately filed complaint hinges on Amazon’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations for these workers, Governor Kathy Hochul’s office said in a statement Thursday. In fact, the company’s policies force pregnant women and workers with disabilities to take unpaid leave if they can’t complete their duties without supportive provisions or policies.

New York’s Human Rights Law compels employers to provide reasonably modified job duties to pregnant workers or employees with disabilities who request them. But DHR said Amazon has systemically allowed worksite managers to override recommendations made by the company’s in-house accommodation consultants, who are tasked with finding solutions to help workers complete essential job functions.

Amazon, which operates 23 warehouses and distribution centers with more than 39,000 workers in New York state, has ignored the recommendations of its accommodation consultants even in situations where reasonable fixes were suggested, DHR said. Forcing employees to take unpaid medical leave is against the Human Rights Law, as it “diminishes the terms and conditions of employment for employees with disabilities,” it added.

“My administration will hold any employer accountable, regardless of how big or small, if they do not treat their workers with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Hochul said. “New York has the strongest worker protections in the nation and was one of the first to have protections for workers who are pregnant and those with disabilities. Working men and women are the backbone of New York and we will continue to take a stand against any injustice they face.”

One pregnant worker mentioned in DHR’s complaint said she received approval for an accommodation that would allow her to avoid lifting packages weighing over 25 pounds—but Amazon’s worksite manager ignored the exemption. Despite her complaints to management, Amazon failed to take action and she suffered an injury as a result. That impairment required further accommodation, but Amazon denied the request and the worker was placed on indefinite unpaid leave.

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“Since the 1970s—years before the Americans with Disabilities Act—New York State has prohibited discrimination against pregnant employees in the workplace,” DHR deputy commissioner for enforcement Melissa Franco said.

In another instance, an Amazon worker with a condition that required a specific sleep schedule was improperly denied a modified work schedule, despite providing medical documentation alongside their request. Though Amazon’s accommodation consultant approved the request, the worksite manager refused to honor it. Instead of challenging the manager’s actions, the consultant subsequently changed the recommendation, saying that the worker lacked proof of a qualifying condition.

DHR, which investigates and prosecute patterns of discrimination through its Initiated Action Unit, has filed a complaint detailing Amazon’s non-compliance with the Human Rights Law. Now, another unit is looking into the allegations. The complaint aims to get Amazon to change its behavior, adopt non-discriminatory policies and train employees on the Human Rights Law. If found guilty, Amazon will also be fined and penalized by the State of New York. “The Division will work to ensure that everyone in our state is fully afforded the rights and dignities that the law requires,” Franco said.

The complaint comes on the heels of an early May discrimination lawsuit filed by one of Amazon’s corporate employees. A former brand manager at the company’s fashion vertical, The Drop, said that Amazon refused her reasonable accommodations when she was experiencing severe long-Covid symptoms during 2020. The e-commerce marketplace instead terminated her position, citing “job abandonment,” and fined her $12,000 for a supposed salary overpayment.

The New York filing is the latest of Amazon’s many entanglements with state policymakers. The company sued Attorney General Letitia James last year when she suggested that the state would take action against the company for pandemic policies that put workers at risk. Amazon accused James of overstepping her authority by suggesting that the company be forced to pay out damages. James’ case against the company was officially dismissed earlier this month.

Part of James’ initial complaint centered on Amazon’s treatment of former employee and whistleblower Christian Smalls, who galvanized a walkout at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island during March 2020. Smalls accused the company of forcing workers to labor under unsafe conditions, violating CDC guidance regarding social distancing and disinfection. After Amazon fired Smalls, former New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio ordered an investigation into the issue.

The JFK8 distribution center voted to unionize earlier this year, with more than 8,000 workers voting by a 10 percent majority to establish Amazon’s first union in April. A second Staten Island warehouse unionization attempt failed earlier this month.