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Engineer sues Amazon for not covering work-from-home internet, electricity bills

And no, I'm not throwing out this lawsuit, says judge

Amazon's attempt to dismiss a lawsuit, brought by one of its senior software engineers, asking it to reimburse workers for internet and electricity costs racked up while working from home in the pandemic, has been rejected by a California judge.

David George Williams sued his employer for refusing to foot his monthly home office expenses, claiming Amazon is violating California's labor laws. The state's Labor Code section 2802 states: "An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer."

Williams reckons Amazon should not only be paying for its techies' home internet and electricity, but also for any other expenses related to their ad-hoc home office space during the pandemic. Williams sued the cloud giant on behalf of himself and over 4,000 workers employed in California across 12 locations, arguing these costs will range from $50 to $100 per month during the time they were told to stay away from corporate campuses as the coronavirus spread.

"Even using the lower end of plaintiff's alleged range of damages (an alleged $50 per month per class member) places more than $5 million in controversy," his complaint [PDF] stated. "As described above, there are at least 4,200 members of the putative class, and plaintiff alleges that each class member is entitled to $50 for each month of his or her employment by Amazon during the relevant period."

Amazon's lawyers, however, believe the broadband and utility bills, and similar expenses, aren't the company's problem since it was following shelter-at-home orders, which require employees to stay away from the office.

"Even though government authorities effectively ordered him to stay home, he claims Services LLC should foot the bill for any expenses he incurred to work remotely, including basic living costs such as electricity and a portion of his housing expenses," they said in a motion to dismiss the case [PDF]. 

"Plaintiff's claims fail because the law does not require Amazon to reimburse expenses that were caused by government actions," the legal eagles argued.

But Vince Chhabaria, a US federal district judge in northern California, slapped down Amazon's attempt to kill off the lawsuit, and said the local government's orders don't necessarily absolve the company from liability. 

"What matters is whether Williams incurred those expenses 'in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer'," Judge Chhabaria ruled [PDF] this week.

"According to the complaint, Amazon expected Williams to continue to work from home after the stay-at-home orders were imposed. That is sufficient to plausibly allege liability, even if Amazon itself was not the but-for cause of the shift to remote work. Williams also plausibly alleges that his expenditures were necessary to do his job."

Chhabaria did grant Amazon's request to dismiss the engineer's claims that it violated California's laws alleging "unfair business practices," but gave Williams's legal team 14 days to file an amended complaint.

The Register has asked Amazon and Williams's lawyer for comment. ®

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