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Amazon Warehouse Fined $41,000 in California Workplace-Safety Probe

Amazon has been fined $41,000 for coronavirus safety-violations at a California warehouse.

Throughout the pandemic, the Seattle-based e-commerce giant has been plagued by worker allegations of unsafe and unsanitary conditions at its warehouses and distribution centers. Now, the company’s LGB7 fulfillment center in the city of Rialto has been officially cited by California’s Department of Industrial Relations’ (DIR) division of Occupational Safety and Health for violating the state’s labor code.

Specifically, the agency wrote in its Monday memorandum, the Amazon warehouse neglected to report any of the 217 Covid cases reported by facility employees from April through Oct. 12 last year on its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) disclosure form. Employers are required to keep detailed records of work-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses.

Graver still are citation items stemming from Amazon’s injury and illness prevention efforts. Prior to and during the course of the Cal/OSHA’s inspection, the Rialto distribution center failed to establish, implement and maintain an effective program to protect workers from becoming sick, it wrote, representing “serious” violations of protocol.

In one instance, Cal/OSHA observed that Amazon had neglected to “identify and evaluate workplace hazards” like the lack of physical distancing or barriers among employees working in its shipping department, “problem-solving area,” managers’ tables and aisles. Employees also lacked face coverings or were seen wearing them incorrectly, heightening the prospect of the “release of infectious or potentially infectious particles into the air.”

A subsequent inspection revealed that the facility’s management had not corrected these issues. Employees were seen, again, working in close proximity without the use of “plexiglass screens or other physical barriers,” and were also observed using masks improperly or not at all.

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What’s more, Amazon failed to provide employees with effective training on Covid prevention, sanitation, symptoms, proper mask usage and reporting protocol should they, or someone in their midst, fall ill, Cal/OSHA said.

If the company does not engage in the appeals process, these citations could cost it $41,000. The continued scrutiny, however, could have reputational costs as well.

Under pressure to be transparent about its rising infection rate, Amazon released a “conservative” estimate in early October that 19,800 workers at Amazon and Whole Foods locations had contracted the virus between March 1 and Sept. 19. The revelation failed to satisfy lawmakers, who pressed on with inquiries.

In December, Xavier Becerra, California’s then attorney general, filed a petition against Amazon requesting that it be compelled to comply with subpoenas from the Department of Justice dating back to August. As workers at the company’s facilities fell ill at a high rate throughout the spring and summer months, the agency had requested information about the safety measures and Covid prevention efforts it was implementing across the state. Amazon “failed to adequately respond, missing several additional opportunities to comply,” Becerra said, prompting his office to push for a deeper probe.

More recently, in anticipation of legal action stemming from its early pandemic response, the tech titan preemptively sued New York Attorney General Letitia James in February. James’ investigation into the company’s actions included the firing of former warehouse manager and whistleblower Christian Smalls, who worked at Amazon’s Staten Island distribution center, known as JFK8, until late March 2020.

In mid-March, one of Amazon’s Canadian warehouses was forced to shut down amid surging Covid infections, and all employees were asked to quarantine for two weeks. The incident prompted the local health board to launch an investigation into potential labor violations, which Amazon said it would appeal.