Union leaders, NY lawmakers pressure Amazon to reinstate fired protester


Inside an Amazon fulfillment center in Massachusetts in 2018.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

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A broad group of union leaders, New York lawmakers and an Amazon employee advocacy organization called on the e-commerce giant to do a better job of protecting its warehouse workers and drivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter released Wednesday night, this group said it was “shocked” Amazon wasn’t putting in place needed protocols to ensure worker safety. It also called for Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse employee who was fired Monday, to be reinstated.

Smalls helped organize a strike at Amazon’s Staten Island facility on Monday. Amazon said it fired him that day for violating a company order to stay home with pay for 14 days after he was in close contact with another employee who tested positive for coronavirus. Smalls instead attended Monday’s strike and said Amazon was attempting to suppress his efforts to speak out against unsafe working conditions at the warehouse.

The group, which included representatives from the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), on Wednesday called for warehouses to be closed down until new protocols, like independent health and safety inspection and monitoring, are put in place. It also asked for covered childcare expenses for workers whose school districts have closed, among other demands. 

The group also included New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, along with several dozen other city and state elected officials. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a regular critic of Amazon, shared a copy of the letter with CNET and also signed it.

Amazon, whose US workforce isn’t unionized, has repeatedly said it’s instituted many new protocols to protect its employees from the pathogen, including increased social distancing in warehouses and increased cleanings. It also raised hourly and overtime pay for workers and is hiring 100,000 more US employees to handle the surge in new orders as millions of Americans are told to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams,” an Amazon spokesperson said Wednesday. “Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams.”

On Smalls’ firing, Dave Clark, senior vice president of operations, tweeted that Smalls repeatedly violated social distancing guidelines at his facility and came back to the warehouse two days after being told to quarantine. “Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable,” Clark wrote.

The letter adds to louder criticism of the company from Amazon’s employees, lawmakers and advocacy groups. All these groups in recent years have raised concerns about the retailer’s treatment of its warehouse workers and are now becoming more vocal amid the fear and frustration of the pandemic. This work could force the company to take further action, as a handful of positive coronavirus cases have been reported in Amazon warehouses across the US.

This criticism comes as the online retailer struggles to respond to a spike in customer demand while instituting new health and safety guidelines during the coronavirus emergency. It’s still been able to get deliveries of food and basic necessities to its millions of customers, though more slowly than usual.

Workers for many other retailers and service providers are raising their own worries about their companies’ ability to keep them healthy while maintaining their operations. Instacart contract workers held a strike Monday. BuzzFeed News also reported on health concerns at both Starbucks and Trader Joe’s.

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, one of many employee advocacy groups within the online retailer, also signed onto Wednesday’s letter. In a separate letter Tuesday night, the group called for better protections for warehouse workers.

The climate-focused group said that more than 500 tech workers are backing these logistics workers’ demands for more robust paid sick leave during the crisis. They also support shutting down any warehouse with a confirmed coronavirus case and paying employees there to stay home “until Amazon can better ensure the safety of its workforce.” 

“We have seen social media posts and heard stories directly from Amazon warehouse workers around the world that show that Amazon is not adequately protecting its hourly workers from COVID-19,” Mark Hiew Sr., an Amazon marketing manager, said as part of the climate group’s statement. “Amazon needs to place a higher value on the health and safety of our co-workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the coronavirus has killed over 4,500 people in the US and over 45,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

On Monday, Staten Island warehouse workers staged a strike to call for better protections, and employees for Whole Foods, which Amazon owns, held a “sick out” on Tuesday. More demonstrations were planned in Chicago and Detroit.

Also, New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday called Smalls’ firing “immoral and inhumane.” Her office is “considering all legal options” related to the firing and called the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.

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