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Former Amazon Fashion Employee Cites ‘Draconian’ Policies in Covid Lawsuit

A discrimination lawsuit filed Monday alleges “draconian employment policies” at Amazon are not limited to warehouse staff, but extend to white-collar workers as well.

Brittany Hope, a former brand manager at the company’s fashion platform, The Drop, claims the e-commerce titan failed to provide her reasonable accommodations as she suffered from “severe” long Covid symptoms in the early months of the pandemic. After repeated attempts at navigating Amazon’s “byzantine” leave system, she says she was laid off for “job abandonment” and then billed $12,000 for a supposed salary overpayment—actions her complaint categorizes as retaliation.

“Given that this matter was recently filed, we’re not in a position to comment on the case at this time,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Though the lawsuit frequently returned to the specific actions of Hope’s supervisor, it also identified structural issues with Amazon’s human resources systems that echo the findings of an investigative report from The New York Times. Published in July, the article centered on the company’s warehouse employees and included claims of “unbridled turnover,” an “error-plagued leave system” and “mistaken firings.”

Amazon originally recruited Hope—then the head of product development and production for footwear and handbags at the New York-based brand Tibi—in October 2019. Initially a contract employee for The Drop, she was quickly promoted to a salaried position. In her lawsuit, Hope said she expressed concern about moving into a position with more responsibility to Sandra Finkelstein, her then-supervisor and the other named defendant alongside Amazon.com Services. Finkelstein allegedly told Hope the new role was “less hectic” and a “9-to-5 position.”

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In early February 2020, Hope said she came down with a “sudden serious illness” that she later realized was Covid. Days after falling ill, she became so sick that she collapsed on the floor. Worried about Hope, her house call doctor broke into her home and called an ambulance to take her to a hospital.

The same day Hope was taken to the hospital, Finkelstein’s supervisor allegedly emailed human resources to complain about her work. “Britt’s been on the team since 12/23 and we’ve had some challenges getting the right level of work out of her in that time,” she wrote, according to to Hope’s complaint. At this point Hope had been out sick for five days.

On or around Feb. 18, about two weeks after initially becoming ill, Hope returned to the office. According to her complaint, she “was not feeling completely well” and “no one asked if she needed any reasonable accommodations” even though “it was obvious that Hope was not fully back to normal.” Eventually she talked with a human resources representative who also did not discuss accommodations, “such as a shift in her work schedule or remote work.”

On March 10, Amazon sent its employees home ahead of former President Trump declaring a national emergency on March 13. Her complaint noted the transition to work-from-home “was challenging for The Drop team,” and especially so for her due to technical problems with her “zukey”—an item Amazon employees use to work remotely. The suit claimed that Hope’s supervisor “became increasingly irritated” with her because of these issues, which also contributed to “Finkelstein’s micromanaging.” Hope said she “regularly” worked 17-hour days during this time.

Hope began “experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time ever and felt like her mental health was unraveling,” the complaint said. After speaking with a psychiatrist, she was prescribed ADHD medication, antidepressants and anxiety medication. After confiding in Finkelstein about her mental health condition “in or around March 2020,” her supervisor allegedly was “dismissive,” “did not address any potential accommodations” and did not seek HR help.

Instead, Finkelstein created a “Britt Hope_Issue Tracker,” dated April 1, 2020, the suit said. On May 1, she wrote a note saying she would move to a formal performance improvement plan in one week.

On May 4, Hope said she woke up with intense chest pain that made breathing difficult. After seeking medical help, a specialist told her she had suffered lung damage consistent with Covid. That same day, Finkelstein updated the Britt Hope_Issue Tracker to say she had talked with someone about starting Hope on the performance improvement plan, noting that her employee was “still out sick.” Hope missed another week of work as she stayed in bed, “where she was too weak to even sit up, let alone be tied to a computer,” her complaint noted.

Finkelstein allegedly continued to send “constant” texts. Hope, who was “in and out of the hospital” at the time, “felt she had no choice but to answer her boss’s messages,” her complaint said. At one point her supervisor texted her, “Awesome – is this all from the ER??” Even as Finkelstein told her to “rest,” she allegedly continued to message Hope and ask for replies.

When Hope did return to work, Finkelstein advised her to request a medical leave of absence until her medical issues were resolved. Though she was hesitant to do so for fear of losing any pay, she ultimately submitted the request on May 12, at which point she could no longer access her work email, Amazon’s Disability and Leave Services Portal or its internal messaging service.

Hope’s lawsuit described months of confusion after she began her leave of absence. “Necessary” documents relating to her leave and “which may have addressed some of the communication challenges” she faced, were stuck in her inaccessible employee portal, creating a “Catch-22 situation,” her complaint claimed. New York Times reporters documented this troubled leave process in June and July 2021.

“Many of the challenges with Amazon’s leave process reported in the Times were experienced by plaintiff, including: Amazon staff needing to go through phone trees to speak with someone in Amazon Leave Services; the inability to submit necessary medical documents; the loss of employee medical document submissions (apparently a “systems issue that had affected others as well”) and; termination while on leave,” the lawsuit said.

The complaint described conflicting instructions that Hope received from Amazon’s internal human resources and Hartford, the insurance company Amazon used to provide short-term disability. For example, her Amazon case manager reportedly instructed her to have her doctor complete medical forms and that Hartford would reach out to the doctor for those forms. On June 23, however, a human resources employee told her Amazon still had not received her medical documentation. A later email instructed her to send a physician statement to Amazon by July 6.

Hope says she sent this statement to two different Amazon case managers on July 3, one of which told her on July 7 that her leave was approved from May 4 to July 12 and that her department “had been informed.” On July 14, her lawsuit claimed, she received a notice from Hartford rejecting her application because she had not provided proof of disability even though her understanding was that her doctor had sent the required information.

While at a doctor’s appointment “in or around late July,” Hope was told her health insurance was canceled. On August 5, she checked her personal email and found a message stating she had been terminated on July 12 for “job abandonment.”

Earlier, on May 22, Hope allegedly received an email saying she had been overpaid and that she was to pay a gross overpayment amount of more than $13,269.24 and a net overpayment amount of nearly $6,988.76. On August 12, they requested $12,272.73, attaching a statement that listed amounts other than the $12,272.73 with no information on when she was allegedly overpaid. Hope claims she never received details from Amazon on why she was overpaid nor a W2 for 2020 or a termination notice outlining when her benefits ended.

Finkelstein, Hope’s supervisor appears to be still employed by Amazon. According to her LinkedIn page, she has been a senior brand director for The Drop since May 2018. In February, she also took on the role of “creative product advisor.”

Amazon has undergone massive employee growth in the recent years. In March 2020, as the reality of the pandemic first began to sink in and many consumers moved online, the company announced plans to hire 100,000 full- and part-time employees. A month later it announced it was hiring another 75,000 workers. In September 2020, it said it was adding 100,000 full-time and part-time employees. The following month, it announced the addition of 100,000 seasonal jobs.

The company has repeatedly endured criticism of working conditions at its fulfillment centers. In April last year, then-CEO Jeff Bezos took steps to address this image, committing to make Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” Last year, it planned to invest more than $300 million in safety projects and an additional $66 million in technology to prevent vehicular collisions.

These steps have not entirely assuaged workers’ concerns. Last month, organizers at a Staten Island distribution claimed victory when workers voted in favor of forming a union. Amazon has sought to contest the results. A neighboring warehouse shot down a similar measure weeks later.