New York’s Attorney General is considering legal action against Amazon and calling on the National Labor Review Board to investigate the company’s firing of an employee who organized a labor protest related to the coronavirus.
In a late Monday statement, Attorney General Letitia James called out Amazon for firing Chris Smalls, a management assistant at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., after he organized a walkout with coworkers to protest their claims that the company was not doing enough to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. As a business that sells so many essential items for consumers, including groceries, Amazon is allowed to operate in full despite states like New York and California having put residents essentially on lockdown and ordered the close of most business.
“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James said in her statement. “At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane.”
She pointed out that the right to organize is “codified into law” in New York, as it is in most other states, and “any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.” She also added that her office is “considering all legal actions” and called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate Smalls’ firing.
Smalls took to TV media on Monday after he was fired. He told CNBC that people working in the Amazon warehouse were doing so while scared for their health and that of their families. Of the walkout, he said, “I felt it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately it cost me my job.
“I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t take care of its people and Amazon has dropped the ball on that,” he added.
Specifically, he said employees asked for a building enclosure and for regular sanitizing of the warehouse, which were allegedly refused. Smalls said he was fired by Amazon based on its claim that he violated a quarantine he was supposed to be under because he was told he came into contact with a colleague who had contracted the coronavirus. He claimed he was the one who sent the colleague home and that he was only interfacing with her for five minutes or less with no contact.
An Amazon spokesperson did not comment late Monday on James’ call for a labor investigation, but did say that Smalls was fired after he received warnings around “social distancing” guidelines and his quarantine, which was required because of his “close contact” with the worker who tested positive for the coronavirus. The company said he was told to stay home with pay for two weeks.
“Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk,” the spokesperson said. “This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”
As for Smalls’ claims around worker safety regarding the coronavirus, the spokesperson said all “are simply unfounded.” The company is said to have implemented additional cleaning and sanitation measures; is enforcing “social distancing,” which requires people work at least six feet apart, along with extended paid sick leave for full-time workers and an additional $2 per hour in New York and double overtime pay. Amazon is said to be in the process of figuring out how to close fulfillment centers for deep cleaning, but only at facilities where a worker has tested positive for the virus.
“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable” the spokesperson said. “We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances and in Staten Island we are now temperature checking everyone entering the facility. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.”
Smalls told CNBC that the temperature checks started Sunday and that “they’re pointless” as his colleague who tested positive had no temperature when she was tested. As for Monday’s protest, while Smalls said that at least 50 Amazon workers walked out, the company refuted that, saying no more than 15 walked out and that it’s taken “extreme measures” to ensure employee safety around concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
The Amazon protest and the AG’s comments come as other labor protests have started to develop among workers deemed “essential,” like those in grocery and online fulfillment, claiming they are not being given proper safety considerations by their employers. On Monday, Instacart grocery delivery workers held a strike calling for higher pay and more access to sick days to offset the risk they are taking by delivering food to people who have been ordered to stay at home, if at all possible. And on Tuesday, Whole Foods’ workers are staging a “sick-out” demanding paid sick leave and employee testing for the coronavirus. Amazon also owns Whole Foods.
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