NELP and NYCOSH File Amicus Brief Supporting Amazon Workers’ Demands for COVID-19 Protections

This past June, with New York still reeling from the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon workers across the country were organizing and fighting to ensure that the company provide a safe workplace during the pandemic.

It was then that Amazon workers Derrick Palmer, Benita Rouse, and Barbara Chandler, along with their respective household members Kendia Mesidor, Alexander Rouse, and Luis Pellot-Chandler, sued Amazon, seeking a court order requiring the company to implement health and safety practices needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among workers at the Staten Island JFK8 facility and their families.

Amazon has been failing to comply with both state and federal public health guidance to prevent workplace spread of COVID-19.  In October, after months of resisting disclosure, including a request from twelve state attorneys-general, Amazon publicly stated that nearly 20,000 workers nationwide had been infected with COVID-19. One recent outbreak was so severe that it forced the closure of an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, despite Amazon’s general policy of keeping warehouses open amid outbreaks. The harm of these egregious decisions by corporations like Amazon is not evenly distributed: Workers of color are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 at work. It is also workers of color who are leading efforts to speak out and fight back, including in Amazon warehouses across the country.

The district court wrongly denied the plaintiffs the court order they sought, deferring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and dismissing plaintiffs’ claims. The district court also held that even if it had not declined to exercise jurisdiction, the plaintiffs’ claim for forward-looking, injury-preventing injunctive relief was preempted by New York’s Workers’ Compensation Law. Plaintiffs, represented by Public Justice, Towards Justice, Make the Road New York, and Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC, appealed to the Second Circuit.

The National Employment Law Project and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health filed an amicus brief on January 19, 2021 in support of the plaintiffs in their appeal.


The amici’s brief argues that the district court’s holdings ignored the text of the New York State Constitution, the history and purpose of the “grand bargain” embodied by the Workers’ Compensation Law, and the plain text of that law. Amici further argue that the district court’s decision ignored how, during the pandemic, OSHA had decided to focus its limited (and at times nonexistent) enforcement resources on health and emergency care workers—leaving workers at Amazon unable to rely on the federal agency to protect them.

As with other cases related to corporations’ failures to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19, what’s at stake in this case is workers’ fundamental rights—including to safety on the job. As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in New York and throughout the country, it has never been more important for all of us to listen to Amazon workers’ demands, both in court and in lawmaking.

Further Background on Palmer v. Amazon

Palmer, et al. v. Amazon was brought by a group of Amazon warehouse workers and their family members against Amazon to remedy Amazon’s COVID-19 workplace health and safety practices at its JFK8 facility in Staten Island.

Some of the plaintiffs allege that they contracted COVID-19 in the workplace, and one plaintiff spread the virus she contracted at work to a family member who died of COVID-19. But aside from their claims for recovery of unpaid sick leave, plaintiffs do not seek damages. Rather, they filed suit under New York law in the Eastern District of New York to seek an injunction ordering Amazon to comply with New York’s “minimum requirements” for businesses during the pandemic, including by altering its productivity quotas to allow workers time to wash their hands and physically distance and allowing workers easier access to paid sick leave. They brought claims for public nuisance under the common law and under N.Y.L.L. Sec. 200 (which obligates employers to provide workers with a safe workplace).

The court dismissed the case, reasoning that it should abstain from ruling on plaintiffs’ public nuisance and N.Y.L.L. Sec. 200 claims under the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine, because of OSHA’s expertise in workplace safety and health matters. The court came to this conclusion notwithstanding that plaintiffs asserted claims under New York law (not under OSHA), that they had not filed a complaint with OSHA (and there was no indication that OSHA was investigating the facility), that OSHA has to this day not promulgated any standard regarding COVID-19 workplace safety, and finally, that the OSH Act does not preempt either the public nuisance or N.Y.L.L. Sec. 200 claim. The court also held that even if it did not abstain from the case on this basis, plaintiffs’ claims would be barred by New York’s workers’ compensation statute.

Plaintiffs have appealed to the Second Circuit and are represented by Public Justice, Towards Justice, Make the Road New York, and Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.

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About the Authors

Laura Padin

Areas of expertise:
  • Enforcement of Workplace Standards,
  • Nonstandard Workforce

Hugh Baran

Senior Staff Attorney & Skadden Fellow

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