Amazon may have broken labor laws in employee firing, New York AG says

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Christian Smalls at a protest outside an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.

Former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls at a March protest in Staten Island.

Courtesy of Make the Road New York

New York’s attorney general said Amazon may have violated the state’s whistleblower laws last month when it terminated a warehouse employee who led a protest on workplace safety.

In a letter to Amazon last week, state Attorney General Letitia James’ office said its initial findings “raise serious concern” that the firing was done to “silence his complaints and send a threatening message to other employees that they should also keep quiet about any health and safety concerns,” according to a report on Monday by NPR, which obtained a copy of the letter. The letter added that the firing has had a chilling effect on other workers coming forward, with others “fearful” to speak out.

Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a worker at its Staten Island, New York, warehouse, the same day he took part in a demonstration outside his warehouse. The termination sparked a loud outcry against Amazon, but the e-commerce giant defended the move by saying Smalls violated a company-mandated quarantine order after he was in close contact with another employee infected with coronavirus.

“We did not terminate Mr. Smalls’ employment for organizing a 15-person protest. We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment,” Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said in a statement Tuesday, adding that he was given multiple warnings for violating social distancing protocols. 

In the letter, the attorney general also claims Amazon may have broken federal and state safety guidelines  by providing “inadequate” protections for New York warehouse workers, NPR reported.

Amazon continually emphasizes its efforts to protect its warehouse employees, including temperature checks, face masks and disinfecting sprays, saying worker safety is its top concern. Several employees have argued that work isn’t enough, pointing to the dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases in warehouses across the US. 

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The New York attorney general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. James in late March called Smalls’ firing “immoral and inhumane.” Her office at the time said it was “considering all legal options” related to the firing and called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.

The letter adds to the heightened pressure Amazon is facing during the coronavirus pandemic, with elected officials, advocacy groups and Amazon employees calling for more protections for warehouse workers. There have already been a string of protests outside Amazon warehouses and “sick out” demonstrations, with employees taking time off work.

Having faced worker discontent for years, Amazon is now under an especially harsh spotlight during the health emergency. Still, many other businesses are struggling with similar problems, with meatpacking plants, major grocers, restaurants and delivery companies all trying to keep their services operational and workers healthy.

Smalls is one of several Amazon employees who protested against the company and were subsequently fired during the past month, though Amazon has provided different reasons for each of these terminations. One other Staten Island employee who demonstrated with Smalls was fired, as was another warehouse worker in Michigan, as well as two tech workers in Seattle.

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