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Amazon, Whole Foods told to address 'a number of outstanding issues' linked to COVID-19

Thirteen attorney generals said they have received no information on how many of the companies' workers have become infected with coronavirus, or died from it.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Offices of 13 attorneys general are urging Amazon and Whole Foods to strengthen worker protection policies and be upfront about novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infections.

Attorney generals from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and the District of Columbia sent a letter to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to address "a number of outstanding issues."

The attorney generals said they have received no information on how many of the companies' workers have become infected or died from COVID-19.

Additionally, the AGs are concerned they are hearing about coronavirus cases secondhand. Those cases include an outbreak in Washington, DC that saw as many as 16 cases; the death of a Whole Foods employee in Portland, Oregon; and the death of a Whole Foods employee in Swampscott, Massachusetts.

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"Many of our States' consumer protection laws require businesses to provide truthful information and disclose material information to consumers," the letter reads. "Such developments - and Whole Foods' responses to these developments - may be material to consumers and the public, as they implicate health concerns that may arise from shopping at Whole Foods stores as well as Whole Foods' representation regarding the safety of its stores."

Whole Foods is being asked to provide descriptions of policies and processes that relate to notifying people of coronavirus developments at its stores.

Addressing the health and safety of workers, the attorney generals wrote they are "dismayed" to have learned of "multiple reports" of Amazon warehouses with inadequate protective equipment, hand sanitizer, the inability to practice social distancing, and other circumstances that "put employees at risk.” The AGs asked the company to provide detailed responses to how it is complying with federal government recommendations.

The attorney generals also wrote that despite "assurances" by company representatives, there have been "disturbing media reports" alleging retaliation against employees who have raised health concerns. The letter cites these terminations specifically: Christian Smalls (New York), Faiza Osman and Bashir Mohammed (Minnesota), and Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham (Washington).

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Tim Bray, a former Amazon executive, said he quit his job to protest the firing of employees who spoke up about the conditions inside warehouses and the company's record on climate change.

The letter calls on Amazon and Whole Foods to investigate allegations of retaliation for raising concerns and to take corrective action, which could include the reinstatement of terminated employees.

Amazon and Whole Foods are also being asked to extend its unlimited unpaid leave policies for "as long as state or federal state of emergency exists."

Finally, the attorney generals said they're "disappointed" with the companies' failure to meet the principal request from states to adopt a more generous paid leave policy to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Amazon's response

An Amazon spokesperson issued the following statement to the letter:

"Safety is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring a clean and safe workplace. We’ve implemented over 150 significant process changes—from enhanced cleaning and social distancing measures to new efforts like disinfectant spraying. We’ve also distributed personal protective gear like masks across our entire operations network. We’ll continue to invest in safety, pay, and benefits for our teams who are playing an invaluable role in getting items to communities around the world."

On May 13, Amazon announced through its blog it was extending hourly pay increases through May and doubling overtime pay in the U.S. and Canada. The company is also providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including an expanded policy to "cover COVID-19 circumstances."

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"We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible for our customers and the community," the company's blog reads. 

Amazon previously stated it was investing $4 billion between April and June on coronavirus-related initiatives "to get products to customers and keep employees safe.” That included spending more than $800 million on safety measures, including investments in personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning of facilities, "process paths" that are "less efficient" but better for social distancing, higher hourly wages, and developing its own testing capabilities.