Amazon is coming under further fire for its handling of worker conditions amid the coronavirus and its treatment of employees who have expressed concern for their health and safety as the pandemic goes on.
Five Democratic members of the U.S. Senate — Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — signed off on a Wednesday letter to Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos regarding the “treatment and safety” of the company’s warehouse workers. They also questioned him on the “abrupt termination” last week of a Staten Island warehouse worker who organized a protest with colleagues over its alleged lack of appropriate protections around the coronavirus.
“While Amazon has previously touted the steps they have taken to keep their workers safe, workers at the Staten Island facility claim that they were in short supply of personal protective equipment like disposable gloves and masks — allegedly, associates were limited to two pairs of disposable gloves per week, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that users throw away gloves after every use,” the senators wrote. “Workers at other Amazon facilities have said essential supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are being rationed, and at times are wholly unavailable.
“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators added, alluding to the increase in consumers buying from Amazon given most of the U.S. is on lockdown and under local orders to stay at home as much as possible. In Los Angeles this week, city officials started advising against even trips to the grocery store as a peak in cases of the coronavirus is expected.
The senators’ letter comes a week after New York Attorney General Letitia James called for a labor investigation into Amazon’s firing of the warehouse worker, Chris Smalls, who claims that he was retaliated against for his actions. He immediately dismissed Amazon’s public position that he was fired for violating an order that he be quarantined with pay after allegedly coming into contact with a colleague who was confirmed to have the coronavirus.
It also comes after a report in Vice based on a leaked internal Amazon memo of a daily executive meeting that included Bezos. In it, Amazon’s general counsel David Zapolsky writes generally of plans to discredit Smalls, noting, “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger p.r. position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.” After the memo was leaked, Zapolsky merely explained that he was “frustrated and upset” when he wrote it, adding he was so because “an employee” had endangered “the health and safety of other Amazonians.”
Along with general concerns about worker safety, the senators asked Bezos for specifics on Smalls’ firing and questioned the plausibility of the timeline that would coincide with Amazon’s explanation that he was fired for violating his quarantine.
“The employee was ordered into quarantine on March 28 and fired on March 30; however, Amazon’s own spokesperson has stated that the diagnosed employee in question last reported for work on March 11th,” the senators wrote. “That timeline would suggest that a 14-day quarantine would have ended on March 25, and that the fired employee was not ordered into quarantine until more than two weeks after coming into contact with the diagnosed employee and after they had begun organizing their colleagues to demand more workplace transparency and stronger workplace protections.”
Other questions the senators asked Bezos: How many other employees at the Staten Island location were told to self-quarantine and when were those employees told; will Amazon assure the public and its employees that they will allow their workers to freely and publicly address concerns they have in the workplace without fear of retribution; what criteria is Amazon using to decide whether to shut down a warehouse after a worker tests positive; will Amazon agree to temporarily shut down a warehouse whenever a worker tests positive; how does Amazon plan on improving transparency during instances in which a worker tests positive; will Amazon agree to let their employees know whenever a worker at their worksite tests positive, and how is Amazon ensuring that there is adequate essential supplies at their facilities, including disposable gloves and masks as well as essential supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes?
The senators asked that Bezos respond to their questions no later than April 14.
An Amazon spokeswoman declined to address whether Bezos intends to respond to the letter. She reiterated the company’s stance that Smalls was fired for violating his required quarantine and that it is trying to aid its 500,000 warehouse and logistics employees in the U.S., including enhanced benefits and another $2 per hour in wages.
“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” the spokeswoman said, “we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country.”
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