Amazon on Fire: Amazon sued for discriminating against pregnant and disabled workers

June 3, 2022

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Amazon has been accused of discriminating against pregnant and disabled workers in a complaint filed by the New York State Division of Human Rights.

What does this mean?

The complaint in question relates to discrimination against pregnant and disabled workers, accusing Amazon of policies requiring workers to take unpaid leaves of absence instead of providing them with reasonable accommodations to allow them to continue working.

Reportedly, Amazon has in-house “accommodation consultants” to ensure human rights laws are complied with. However, recommendations put forward by these consultants can be dismissed by worksite managers. In this particular case, two disabled workers’ schedules were modified to accommodate their disabilities but when their managers resisted these changes the decision was allegedly reversed. Amazon is accused of forcing one pregnant worker to continue lifting packages over 25 pounds (11 kg) and, after she was injured, placing her on indefinite unpaid leave.

New York’s Human Rights Law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to pregnant and disabled workers if asked. Amazon is a large employer in New York, operating worksites with more than 39,000 workers, and could be hit with civil fines and penalties as a result. Speaking on the matter, Amazon’s spokeswoman Kelly Nantel claims Amazon seeks to ensure all their employees feel safe and supported. However, Nantel admitted that with over 1.6 million people in their workforce, the company would not always get it right.

What's the big picture effect?

This isn’t the first time Amazon has been in the hot water over their treatment of employees. As mentioned by Nantel, with 1.61 million people employed by the company in the US, it is the second largest US private employer after Walmart. Mistakes seem to be a recurring issue – the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been called on by six Democratic senators to investigate Amazon’s alleged “systemic” failure to accommodate pregnant warehouse workers.

In 2019, CNET ran a report on seven women who were dismissed by Amazon due to their pregnancy. The report focused on California, describing the case of one woman who was fired less than two months after telling her managers she was pregnant. Requests for accommodating the women included longer bathroom breaks and fewer continuous hours on their feet, according to the lawsuits. An Amazon spokesperson denied any allegations of firing employees due to pregnancy.

The suit is the latest high-profile workplace controversy feeding into the Great Resignation – the elevated rate at which US workers have quit their jobs starting in the spring of 2021, amid growing demand for better working conditions after the COVID-19 pandemic. As we look at Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) concerns, people are also demanding human rights be upheld – failure to do so might result in reputational damage. Amazon’s complaints are not only within the US; in April 2018 an undercover author found Amazon workers in the UK had developed a “toilet bottle” system because they worried about penalties over bathroom breaks.

Yet, how impactful might the fines placed for any misconduct be? In New York, violations can result in penalties of up to $50,000, or $100,000 for wilful conduct – a small drop in the ocean when considering Amazon’s profits ($33.4bn in 2021). Amazon’s reputational damage has also remained sufficiently intact, despite the growing number of complaints over the years. Even if these cases are found to have merit, current deterrence strategies appear to be inadequate.

Report written by Monika Sakyte

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