Amazon discriminates against its pregnant and disabled employees by failing to provide them with reasonable accommodations under the state’s Human Rights Law, the state of New York alleged in court filings Wednesday.
In an administrative complaint sent to the tech behemoth, New York State’s Division of Human Rights outlines several accounts of pregnant workers whose requests for modified duties or scheduling were ignored.
In one case outlined by the state, a pregnant woman asked to not have to lift packages of over 25 lbs. Her request was denied and she was subsequently injured while lifting a heavy package, forcing her into an indefinite unpaid leave. In other cases, Amazon denied requests from disabled workers for modified hours and scheduling that had been requested by medical professionals.
Amazon, a company worth $1.6 trillion, would only be fined up to $125,000, if a subsequent investigation and administrative hearing process determine it violated New York State’s Human Rights Law. But ultimately the company could be compelled to change its policies for pregnant workers through a potential settlement process.
"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," Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement. “Working men and women are the backbone of New York and we will continue to take a stand against any injustice they face."
But Seth Goldstein, an attorney for the Amazon Labor Union, said he doubted a fine would get the company to change course. He’s calling on New York State to claw back the millions in tax breaks it’s given to Amazon through the Excelsior Jobs Program and other subsidies, estimated to amount to more than $389 million, according to the nonprofit Good Jobs First, a national economic policy group.
“While $100,000 to a small employer may be costly, to Amazon that’s pennies,” Goldstein said. “We need a substantial penalty against them.”
A spokesperson for New York State Attorney General Tish James said the office is reviewing the request.
Goldstein recently filed a complaint against Amazon for forcing a pregnant worker in Syracuse, who was also a union organizer, to pick up cigarettes in a hot parking lot after she’d requested accommodations for her pregnancy.
One of the demands laid out by the nascent Amazon Labor Union, which is organizing the company’s warehouses on Staten Island, is that the company install an accommodations officer on site, in order to “make the process more streamlined and accountable.” Members of the union didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Amazon has long been accused of subjecting pregnant workers to dangerous and life-threatening conditions.
Vice reported on the case of one woman in California who was denied accommodations and subsequently miscarried. Workers in Oklahoma faced a similar choice of foregoing pay or putting their babies at risk.
Multiple lawsuits have described pregnant women who were fired from the company, and the tribulations of pregnant Amazon workers even proved fodder for a BBC television drama. Last year, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and some of her colleagues sent a letter to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission demanding it investigate the company’s policies for pregnant workers.
The state declined to provide a copy of the complaint saying it was confidential until the final determination by an administrative judge is made.
Amazon employs more than 39,000 people across 23 New York locations.
Spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company takes worker protection seriously and expressed surprise at the state's complaint.
“While we don't always get it right with a workforce of over 1.6 million people, we work diligently to offer the best available options to accommodate individual situations," Nantel said in a statement. "We’re surprised by the governor’s announcement this morning because we’ve been cooperating and working closely with her investigator on this matter and had no indication a complaint was coming. Since we haven’t received the complaint ourselves yet, we’re not in a position to comment further.”
This story has been updated with additional comment.