Amazon can’t help but to get itself into trouble. Whether it’s being exposed for a “punishing” work culture that “redraw[s] the boundaries of what is acceptable,” getting called out for its “potential abuse of dominance,” or being boycotted over reportedly poor labour practices and ties to anti-immigration policy, the online retailer seems to live in hot water. (In These Times has devoted an entire series to the vivid stories of Amazon workers; its latest instalment tracks a woman’s journey to organize her community against poor working conditions at a site known for some of the highest injury rates among all its fulfillment centres.)
The most recent exponent of this pattern arrived this month, when Shaun Simmons, a transgender man who is a former Amazon employee, filed a lawsuit with the Superior Court of New Jersey alleging pregnancy discrimination, harassment, and gender identity-based retaliation by co-workers and supervisors.
According to the 20-page court document, Simmons started working at an Amazon fulfillment centre in New Jersey back in January of 2015. Last June, he said, while his direct supervisor was away for training, he privately disclosed to his interim supervisor that he was pregnant.
When, the following day, another coworker congratulated him on the pregnancy, Simmons was shocked to realize that his interim supervisor had not kept his disclosure confidential. He’d been outed to his workmates, without his consent, as trans.
Watch: Amazon employees lead Prime Day boycott against the online retail giant. Story continues below.
Simmons’s lawsuit goes on to claim that this moment was followed by harassment. In an effort to demote him, Simmons alleges, his interim supervisors began heavily criticizing and castigating Simmons’s work performance. When he made a complaint with human resources, he was sent home and given a paid leave of absence, a response that became the frustrating norm in the complaints he would continue to file afterward.
On one occasion, for example, Simmons said a coworker verbally harassed him about his gender identity in the men’s bathroom. And rather than reprimanding that employee, human resources put Simmons on paid leave again.
Simmons was assigned to do heavy lifting, in spite of his pregnancy
When Simmons returned to work, he was assigned to lift heavy objects like large bags of dog food and other weighty food packages. Apparently, he’d never had to do heavy lifting before.
When Simmons started to develop a pain in his abdomen from all the lifting, he requested to be transferred to a different position. It was a request based on the restrictions unique to his pregnancy — according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “heavy lifting, standing for long periods of time, or bending a lot during pregnancy could increase your chances of miscarriage, preterm birth, or injury during pregnancy.” Simmons asked to do supervisor work.
“This past June, the Supreme Court ruled LGBTQ+ that workers would be additionally protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Instead, Simmons was placed into another heavy lifting role that August. His next complaint to human resources earned him another paid leave, only this time, he was told that he’d need to submit verification from his physician to prove he was actually pregnant before he’d be allowed to return to work or get pregnancy accommodations. (The lawsuit claims Simmons did provide this documentation, but was still denied accommodations.)
Simmons said his workplace also informed him that they’d be rescinding a promotion he’d previously been offered at another facility, where he might have escaped this harassment. As it stands, New Jersey’s Family Leave Act entitles workers to up to 12 weeks of family leave over the course of a 24-month period. And it wasn’t long ago (this past June, in fact) that the Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ+ workers would be additionally protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Still, Simmons was told he’d be put on unpaid leave until his child was born. Now, he wants the court to order Amazon to cease and desist discriminatory conduct against himself and other trans people. He’s also seeking reinstatement to his job, back pay, restoration of lost benefits, legal fees/costs, and expungement of his employment record with Amazon.
In 2017, a similar lawsuit was filed by a couple in Kentucky
This isn’t the first time the online retail behemoth has been caught up in an anti-trans discrimination and harassment lawsuit. Back in 2017, a married couple who worked at a warehouse in Kentucky sued Amazon for “cruel and persistent anti-transgender discrimination.”
“I thought we would be safe and accepted,” Allegra Schawe-Lane told the Associated Press, citing Amazon’s reputation as an LGBTQ-friendly workplace.
Amazon denied any wrongdoing, but the couple — a trans woman and her husband — cited numerous instances of workplace abuse, from her being intentionally misgendered to both of them being harassed about their sex life and threatened with violence. Employees peeked over the stall divider as Schawe-Lane used the bathroom. On one occasion, the couple discovered the brakes in their car had been intentionally severed.
“The trauma we withstood still impacts us negatively today, creating serious health problems and leaving us with no money to pay for the doctors we desperately need,” Schawe-Lane said. Amazon settled the case in 2019.
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