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Amazon warehouse workers file lawsuit claiming ‘sloppy contact tracing’

Amazon fulfillment center warehouse.

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When Derrick Palmer learned that his supervisor at Amazon had the coronavirus, he immediately notified the company.

“I told them that I was in contact with this person, that I might have the virus and possibly spread it,” said Palmer, a worker at Amazon’s Staten Island facility, known as JFK8. 

Palmer was sure that Amazon would tell him to go home and quarantine.

Instead, they told him to report to work as usual the next day, Palmer told CNBC.

Now, Palmer and two other JFK8 workers have filed a lawsuit on that calls into question the company’s efforts to track and prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus among workers, arguing that it has failed to follow proper guidelines provided by public health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Amazon’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized by warehouse workers, politicians and state attorneys general. They argue Amazon moved too slowly in its efforts to provide personal protective equipment, temperature checks and other tools to keep employees safe. The company and its CEO Jeff Bezos have pushed back on these accusations, saying Amazon has gone to “great lengths” to protect workers from the coronavirus. 

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for New York’s Eastern District, alleges that Amazon has “sought to create a facade of compliance,” but has failed to adequately protect workers from the virus in a number of ways, including “sloppy contact tracing.” Last week, the company notified employees of multiple new cases at JFK8, according to the lawsuit. 

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The employees aren’t seeking financial damages but are asking the court for an injunction that would require Amazon to follow public health standards. 

“Amazon purports to take responsibility for ‘contact tracing,’ even while declining to take the most basic steps in tracking worker contacts and in some cases purposefully concealing information about who has contracted the virus from the coworkers,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed jointly with legal groups Towards Justice, Public Justice, and Make the Road New York. 

Amazon told CNBC in a statement that it has always followed the guidance of federal and local health authorities, including the CDC, the World Health Organization, its own workplace health and safety experts and an independent epidemiologist. The company said it follows CDC guidelines around contact tracing and that its process includes reviewing camera footage and data such as where employees were onsite and for how long. Amazon also said it conducts interviews with individuals. 

Amazon added that state health and safety regulatory agencies have inspected 91 facilities since March and it passed all on-site inspections. 

What the lawsuit claims Amazon is doing wrong

The lawsuit lays out what it claims to be are several flaws in Amazon’s contact tracing efforts.

After an Amazon employee tests positive for Covid-19, the company reviews video footage from cameras on site to determine which employees may have interacted with the individual and become exposed to the virus. The company then notifies those employees and places them in quarantine. 

But the lawsuit notes the company only reviews surveillance footage to identify those who were in close contact with an infected individual, while the CDC recommends that entities interview the infected individual to get a more complete picture. 

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Surveillance footage is not a comprehensive source for employee interactions, said Frank Kearl, a staff attorney at Make the Road New York, one of the plaintiffs. Employees often carpool into work together or talk in groups outside the facility. It’s also unlikely that there are surveillance cameras in employee bathrooms, which are high-traffic areas, Kearl said.

Additionally, Amazon reviews surveillance footage covering only the last 24 hours before an infected employee is identified, the lawsuit claims. CDC guidance notes that a “close contact” includes anyone “who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset.” 

In a declaration filed in conjunction with the lawsuit, Melissa Perry, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, said Amazon’s response to Palmer was “not adequate contact tracing.” 

Perry also questioned whether Amazon should be in charge of its own contact-tracing efforts. The lawsuit calls on Amazon to bring in an independent, third party organization to handle it.

“Contact tracing requires building of trust to facilitate honest communication between the contact tracer, infected individuals, and their contacts,” Perry wrote. “Given Amazon’s power over its warehouse workers and the risk of retaliation, Amazon is not well situated to perform this function, and does not seem to be interviewing workers as part of its contact tracing efforts.”

Information about positive cases is also tightly controlled inside facilities, according to the lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Amazon instructs employees to “avoid telling others if they become infected and rely on Amazon to perform contact tracing.” 

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Amazon disputed this claim, saying as soon as the company is notified of a positive case, it immediately notifies all employees on site. The company keeps the infected person’s identity confidential out of respect for their privacy. It’s up to employees if they share their diagnosis with others, Amazon added. 

Kearl said information about cases and contact tracing “need to be open and shared,” adding that transparency is critical to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. 

“We’re not asking them to violate HIPAA laws, but to perform accurate contact tracing,” Kearl said. “Telling people not to tell others they tested positive is not recommended by the CDC.”

Amazon continues to notify employees of new coronavirus cases across the U.S., but it hasn’t provided a total number of workers who have tested positive for the virus at its facilities. As a result, Amazon workers have attempted to keep an unofficial tally of confirmed and unconfirmed cases in the U.S. A crowdsourced Reddit spreadsheet shows several new cases at Amazon facilities as recently as May 30th.

WATCH: What it’s like inside an Amazon warehouse during the Covid-19 pandemic

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