Amazon tells staff hand-washing time won’t be held against them

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NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – .com Inc told employees at a New York warehouse, where workers have sued and gone on strike over safety concerns, that they won’t be punished for insufficient productivity or extra washing their hands.

In a message Amazon sent recently to employees and posted in bathrooms at the Staten Island facility, the e-commerce giant said workers wouldn’t be disciplined for falling short of quotas based on how many tasks they complete each hour. Time spent on safety measures like also won’t be counted against them under Amazon’s “Time Off Task” policy, which limits the number of unproductive minutes allowed in their day.

The company also said that the more lenient policy, instituted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had been in place since mid-March.

Amazon’s legal team shared the message on Monday (July 13) with the judge handling a lawsuit, filed by warehouse employees and family members, that claims the company’s “oppressive and dangerous” policies have exacerbated Covid-19 risks.

Jason Schwartz, an attorney representing Amazon, wrote that the company’s policies were already clear to workers, but that it reiterated the message “in an abundance of caution”.

The plaintiffs disputed that Amazon had already told workers about this. In a declaration also filed on Monday, employee Derrick Palmer said that prior to that morning’s email he hadn’t received any communication from the company about such a policy change.

“I have continued to work as fast as I did before the outbreak of Covid-19, and I have continued to do things like rush back to my workstation following breaks or skip trips to the bathroom to wash my hands, in order to keep my rate up and to limit my TOT,” he wrote.

Amazon has denied wrongdoing. Lisa Levandowski, a company spokesman, declined to comment on pending litigation.

The largest US internet retailer has said that it’s made over 150 process updates to protect employees, and expects to spend more than US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) on coronavirus safety measures including masks, hand sanitiser, thermal cameras, and additional handwashing stations.

The company also provided the court a list of talking points which it said was given to managers earlier this year so they could inform employees of the more lenient Covid policy. The document specified that it was “for verbal use only”.

“Amazon is trying to have it both ways – to say that they had a policy protecting workers without those workers actually knowing about it,” David Seligman, the executive director of non-profit Towards Justice, said.

Seligman, whose organisation brought the lawsuit along with fellow advocacy groups Public Justice and Make the Road New York, said Monday’s message from Amazon was a “tremendous victory”.

The lawsuit, which accuses Amazon of “purposeful miscommunication with workers” and “sloppy contact tracing” as well as a “culture of workplace fear”, remains ongoing.

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