Amazon has a lot to chew on lately. If it’s not repeat union drives, it’s allegations of “discriminatory conduct.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that the New York State Division of Human Rights has filed a complaint against Amazon, alleging it engages in discrimination against pregnant workers and workers with disabilities by denying them reasonable accommodations.
The Division alleges that Amazon has policies that force pregnant workers and workers with disabilities to take an unpaid leave of absence rather than allowing them to work with a reasonable accommodation.
In a press statement, Hochul said, “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. New York has the strongest worker protections in the nation and was one of the first to have protections for workers who are pregnant and those with disabilities. Working men and women are the backbone of New York and we will continue to take a stand against any injustice they face.”
Even prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, New York State has secured some workplace protections since the ’70s. The New York State Human Rights Law requires that all employers, upon request, reasonably accommodate workers with disabilities or pregnancy-related conditions, including modification of job duties and the like.
Where it gets complicated is the way Amazon defers decision-making for reasonable accommodations.
In New York, Amazon operates some 23 worksites with more than 39,000 workers. The company also employs in-house “accommodation consultants” to evaluate employee requests and recommend appropriate action in the case of needs accommodation. The Division alleges that Amazon’s policy of allowing worksite managers to override the recommendations made by the accommodations consultant has led to Amazon denying reasonable accommodations for employees’ disabilities and pregnancy-related conditions.
Some accommodations are outright dismissed, according to the allegations.
In one complaint, a worker who requested a shift change due to disability — that was approved by the accommodations consultant — was refused accommodation by the Amazon worksite manager and dismissed by the employer citing lack of “sufficient medical documentation.” In another complaint, a worker with a documented disability (and supporting paperwork) necessitating certain working hours was denied the request by a worksite manager despite previous recommendation by the accommodations consultant. After the manager’s refusal, the consultant rolled back their decision.
As for how pregnant workers are faring, the Division alleges that Amazon curbed a reasonable accommodation granted to one pregnant worker, which resulted in a physical injury. The worker requested and was approved to receive a reasonable accommodation to avoid lifting packages over 25 pounds, due to pregnancy. However, the worksite manager refused to allow the accommodation thus forcing the worker to continue lifting heavy packages. When the worker suffered an injury, Amazon allegedly denied the request and forced the pregnant worker into indefinite unpaid leave.
When reached for comment, Amazon expressed shock and sympathy providing the following statement from Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel: “Ensuring all our employees, including those with disabilities and expectant mothers, feel safe and supported is extremely important to Amazon and we have numerous programs to ensure that’s the case, and 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. 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.”
Ultimately, the Division’s complaint urges Amazon to cease any discriminatory conduct and adopt new non-discriminatory policies and practices, such as training employees on the provisions guaranteed under the state Human Rights Law, as well as paying civil fines or penalties to the State of New York.