In summary

California’s attorney general sued to get Amazon to comply with investigative subpoenas into the e-commerce giant’s coronavirus prevention efforts.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra accused Amazon of withholding information in California’s ongoing investigation into the company’s coronavirus protocols and COVID-19 cases at distribution facilities across the state. The move reveals fresh government scrutiny over Amazon’s workplace safety practices since the online retailer has been on a hiring spree throughout the pandemic. 

Becerra filed suit today in the Sacramento County Superior Court asking the court to order the e-commerce giant to comply with outstanding investigative subpoenas from the California Department of Justice. Though Amazon says it has been cooperating, California’s top prosecutor outlined a series of delays and incomplete responses from the company, suggesting stalling tactics were slowing down his investigation.

“Amazon has made billions during this pandemic relying on the labor of essential workers,” Becerra said in a statement. “Time is of the essence. Amazon has delayed responding adequately to our investigative requests long enough.”

The attorney general’s office says Amazon has “failed to adequately respond” to investigative summons, which were issued Aug. 19 following months of informal communication. Prosecutors sought specific details about Amazon’s coronavirus prevention efforts, including sick leave policies and cleaning procedures, as well as raw data on the number of infections and deaths at their facilities in the state.

“We’re investigating because we got reports, information, complaints about conditions (and) incidents” that were credible, Becerra said at a press conference. “We believe that it merits looking into Amazon’s protocols.”

Amazon denied that it has not cooperated. If a judge approves the petition, Amazon could face penalties for not handing over the information in a timely fashion, Becerra said.

“We’re puzzled by the attorney general’s sudden rush to court because we’ve been working cooperatively for months and their claims of noncompliance with their demands don’t line up with the facts,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

The move marks an escalation of the state’s investigations into how Amazon is and isn’t keeping its workers safe, as workers have complained about a lack of social distancing, mask wearing, case notification and sanitation. Meanwhile, soaring demand for online shopping during the pandemic has boosted the company’s sales and profits to record levels. Amazon is hiring 100,000 new seasonal workers for the holidays nationwide, with the most hires in California and several other states.

The news comes just as the first Californians receive vaccines, and as the attorney general is likely on his way out to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under president-elect Joe Biden.

Becerra said it’s possible that Amazon’s lack of transparency could complicate vaccine distribution to its essential workers.

“Depending on…the information we may not be getting, certainly that could impact the way our government — our state government or local governments — proceed with the distribution of the vaccine,” Becerra said.

‘They want us to feel like everything is okay’

After months of pressure, Amazon released on Oct. 1 data about case rates, but not counts, among employees by state, which indicated that 1.46% of California employees had tested positive, below the statewide case rate at the time of 1.98%. 

However, Amazon has not disclosed more recent data and won’t disclose numbers of cases at specific facilities, leading some workers to try to assemble their own counts based on limited company notifications they receive about new coronavirus cases. 

A spokesperson told CalMatters in November that “site-specific case figures lack a significant amount of context” such as local infection rates, timelines, and how Amazon compares to other companies.

“We utilize a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings, and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work,” the spokesperson said, pointing reporters to a blog post detailing the company’s safety protocols.

Amazon is not required by California law to report to the public the number of coronavirus infections at its facilities. And such a requirement got negotiated out of a new law, AB 685, that, starting Jan. 1, will require workplaces to notify their county health departments, but not the public, of all cases and notify only employees who were near or in the same worksite as the exposed employee.

Amazon is already issuing that type of employee notification. Two to three times a week, workers at the Fresno Amazon warehouse receive notifications about new cases, which one worker called “basically useless” because they don’t specify how many people are sick or in which department the infection occurred, The Fresno Bee recently reported as part of the California Divide news collaboration examining income inequality.

Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, who authored AB 685, told reporters that she may introduce urgency legislation to make sure that workplace outbreaks are reported to the public.

Delivery driver Nasir, who CalMatters agreed to identify only by his Muslim name because he feared retaliation, ferries about 150 Amazon packages a day to Los Angeles homes for about $15 per hour.

Working for a third party delivery company, Nasir said that he had received two email notifications about cases at his delivery station in Hawthorne as of late October, even as direct Amazon employees at the facility had received over two dozen notifications about coronavirus cases. The Hawthorne facility is one of two Amazon facilities that the state’s workplace safety agency cited in October for failing to train workers in COVID-19 safety, both of which Amazon appealed.

To Nasir, Amazon’s choice not to be forthcoming with the data is “intentional.”

“They don’t want us to know. They don’t want us to be worried. They want us to feel like everything is okay,” Nasir said. “But we’re risking our lives for a thousand dollars. This ain’t right.”

Amazon already in hot water

According to federal data, Cal/OSHA has closed 34 complaints from Amazon workers from 12 counties and inspected Amazon facilities 16 times since the start of the pandemic, a sign that more citations could be on the way.

A recent closed complaint came from a worker at an Amazon delivery station in El Monte in October: 

“Employees are not wearing a mask and are not social distancing. Management has been informed but does not do anything about it. There have been positive cases of COVID-19 at the facility,” a Cal/OSHA agent summarized.

Backed by Becerra, Cal/OSHA recently mandated new coronavirus-specific workplace safety rules, which require that employers identify and fix COVID-19 hazards with the help of workers, notify all potentially exposed employees and offer them testing, pay workers while they are quarantined, and report all outbreaks to local health departments, among other requirements.

But it’s impossible to know whether Amazon is following these new rules, the attorney general’s petition says, given “Amazon’s repeated delays and series of deficient responses.”

Amazon said that its safety protocols have been top-notch.

“The bottom line is that we’re a leader in providing COVID-19 safety measures for our employees – we’ve invested billions of dollars in equipment and technology, including building on-site testing for employees and providing personal protective equipment,” the Amazon spokesperson said. “We encourage anyone to compare our speed and actions in this area to any other major employer.”

The company expects to spend more than $11 billion on coronavirus safety by the end of this year.

Updated Dec. 14, 2020, with additional reporting.

The Mercury News reporter Laurence Du Sault contributed to this report. This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Jackie covered income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration from 2019 through 2021. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2021 for a Reuters...