On March 7, 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Chhabria of the Northern District of California denied a motion to certify a class of 7,000 Amazon employees seeking reimbursement for their home internet expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiff David G. Williams, an Amazon employee, argued that Amazon violated the California Labor Code 2802 by failing to reimburse its employees’ internet expenses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Williams’ arguments focused on two main points: (1) Amazon’s “common policy” only allowed reimbursements for employees whose home internet expenses increased and (2) Amazon failed to reimburse the Class even though it was aware that its employees were working from home and therefore incurring home internet expenses.
Williams first argued that Amazon’s language posted in the FAQ section of its internal wiki page stating that it would “only allow employees to seek reimbursement for incremental increases in home internet costs” violated California’s Labor Code. Judge Chhabria quickly dispensed of this argument, anchoring his decision in the fact that 600 of the 7,000 Amazon employees within the proposed class had received reimbursement for home internet expenses during the class period. Judge Chhabria found that despite Williams’ “interpretation of the words in the FAQs” it was not a common policy and rather, Amazon did reimburse a meaningful subset of the proposed class. Judge Chhabria found that a “meaningful subset” of the proposed class received an average reimbursement of about $66.49 a month for home internet expenses. In an attempt to save this argument, Williams’ offered to exclude those employees who received reimbursement from the class definition. Judge Chhabria declined, finding it would not be appropriate to do so.
On the other hand, Judge Chhabria was more open to Williams’ second argument. Williams argued that Amazon knew that the proposed Class of Amazon employees were incurring home internet expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Judge Chhabria took notice of Amazon’s policies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that evolved based on the status of the pandemic. Amazon’s policy shifted from recommending that its employees work from home to eventually advising that those who can effectively work from home are “welcome to do so.” Judge Chhabria found that the common question of this proposed Class could be whether Amazon was obligated to reimburse home internet expenses under these circumstances. However, Judge Chhabria found that the motion’s overall argument relied too heavily on the first “common policy” claim and therefore denied the motion. Notably, Judge Chhabria denied the motion without prejudice, allowing Williams to file a renewed motion with arguments more fine-tuned to Judge Chhabria’s interpretation of the facts.
The matter is next set for a case management conference at the end of the month. Williams filed similar lawsuits against large corporations like IBM and Oracle, some of which led to settlements providing workers stipends of up to $83 per month to cover home office expenses. When Williams files his renewed motion for class certification, it will be important to see whether the Court will certify the class based on the argument that Amazon effectively instructed its employees to work from home and was aware that home internet expenses would be generated. If certified under this argument, the precedent created could have significant legal implications on other large businesses that also instructed its employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic without reimbursing home internet expenses.