It is no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has made the rich richer. The billionaire class in the United States added $1 trillion in wealth during the 10-month period from March 2020 to the start of 2021, according to Forbes. But not all billionaires are created equal, and one billionaire has benefited more than most: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The richest man in the world is now worth $191 billion. That’s up $73 billion—a better than 70 percent spike—since the pandemic took hold and Amazon took off as the definitional corporation for a moment when almost everyone was shopping from home. Amazon, which was just passing the $1 trillion valuation mark at the start of 2020, is now pushing past $1.7 trillion. And Comparisun’s “Trillion Dollar Club” study reports, “Despite losing an estimated $38 billion as part of his recent divorce, Jeff Bezos is still by far the world’s richest person and his net worth has grown by 34 percent on average over the last five years, which could potentially see him become the world’s first trillionaire as early as 2026, at which point he’ll be aged 62.”
So how is Bezos celebrating his plenitude? By attacking New York Attorney General Tish James for calling out Amazon’s failure to protect workers from the pandemic that is making the company and its founder obscenely wealthy.
Even as Amazon has been seeking in recent weeks to present itself as a benevolent behemoth—with a new ad campaign and moves to cozy up to the Biden administration—the company’s lawyers sought earlier this month to preempt the legal accountability that James is in a position to demand. Amazon’s attorneys filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court on February 12 claiming that James would be exceeding her authority if she went after the online retailer for failing to follow safety protocols and protect workers at its New York City warehouses. The company’s complaint claimed that “Amazon has been intensely focused on Covid-19 safety and has taken extraordinary, industry-leading measures grounded in science, above and beyond government guidance and requirements, to protect its associates from Covid-19.”
James, a courageous prosecutor who has taken on former president Donald Trump, among others, did not blink.
“Throughout this pandemic, Amazon employees have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, all while the company and its CEO made billions off of their backs,” she declared. “This action by Amazon is nothing more than a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus. Let me be clear: We will not be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people. We remain undeterred in our efforts to protect workers from exploitation and will continue to review all of our legal options.”
Then she sued the tech giant that has been dogged by protests from workers in New York who say the company has prioritized profits over employee health and safety. Citing “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements [that] threatened serious illness and grave harm” to workers at Amazon facilities in the New York City boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, the suit charges: “Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprecedented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders.”
The lawsuit details the results of an investigation that the attorney general’s office says “uncovered evidence showing that Amazon’s health and safety response violated state law with respect to cleaning and disinfection protocols, contact tracing, and generally permitting employees to take necessary precautions to protect themselves from the risk of COVID-19 infection, among other things.”
These are not new complaints. Last March, after Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a management assistant at the Staten Island warehouse, for organizing a walkout of workers to protest the company’s coronavirus response, the father of three said, “I got e-mails and texts and phone calls from all over the nation calling me a hero for speaking up because people are afraid.” Since then, Amazon workers around the world have objected, organized, and, in Alabama, forced a historic unionization vote.
But the suit by James has got the company especially agitated—and litigious. Why? Because, as the head of what many see as the most powerful law enforcement arm of any state government in the nation, James has the authority to crack down on a corporation that has a long history of avoiding accountability. She also has the stature to shine a light on how Amazon has cashed in on Covid-19. The state’s lawsuit does just that with this charge: “Over the course of the pandemic, Amazon netted more $130 billion in profits from online sales—representing 35 percent growth from its pre-pandemic earnings and a 10 percent higher growth rate than in prior years—at the expense of its frontline workers who have experienced significant risks of COVID-19 infection while working at Amazon.”
“Since the pandemic began, it is clear that Amazon has valued profit over people and has failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers,” says James. “The workers who have powered this country and kept it going during the pandemic are the very workers who continue to be treated the worst. As we seek to hold Amazon accountable for its actions, my office remains dedicated to protecting New York workers from exploitation and unfair treatment in all forms.”
In addition to asking a judge to require Amazon “to take all affirmative steps” to “adequately protects the lives, health, and safety of its employees”—and to award back pay and damages to Smalls and another former employee, Derrick Palmer—the attorney general’s suit proposes to make Amazon “give up the profits it made as a result of its illegal acts.”
Amazon objects to the suggestion that it values profits over people. But its own attempts to sell itself as a model employer keep falling short. Under pressure from James and other attorneys general, the company reported in October that it had counted 19,816 presumed or confirmed Covid-19 cases among frontline employees at its Amazon and Whole Foods Market facilities across the United States. Making comparisons with the overall infection rate in the general population, the company’s PR team declared the figure to be “lower than the expected number.” It also acknowledged, “Wide availability of data would allow us to benchmark our progress and share best practices across businesses and industries.” Yet Amazon did not update the number as the pandemic surged in the fall of 2020 and the winter of 2020/2021.
Amazon has been even less forthcoming when it comes to the death toll at its facilities. When the 19,816 number was released, “how the 19,816 workers became infected was left unsaid,” a PCMag review noted.“The company also refrained from estimating how many infected workers later died from the virus.”
We know Amazon workers have died. Last May, a USA Today headline announced, “Another Amazon warehouse worker dies from COVID-19 bringing total to 8.” That story concluded with a cheery note: “Amazon has seen a spike in overall demand for its services as people stay at home due to coronavirus and have more necessities delivered. A recent projection shows Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos could reach trillionaire status by 2026.”
As media outlets continue to speculate about Bezos’s burgeoning wealth—and that of other coronavirus “winners”—the lawsuit that’s been filed by Tish James raises the essential question for essential workers: At what cost?