Why Amazon fired a warehouse worker who organized a walkout

Can workers still have the right to protest amid social distancing restrictions? Amazon's decision to fire the worker who organized a strike for flaunting social distancing measures drew criticism, calling for the National Labor Relations Board to investigate. 

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Workers at Amazon's fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, gather outside to protest work conditions in the company's warehouse in New York, on March 30, 2020. Amazon fired a worker who staged the walkout saying the employee himself flaunted distancing rules.

Amazon fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against the new coronavirus, saying the employee himself flouted distancing rules and put others at risk.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the city's Commission on Human Rights to investigate whether the dismissal was retaliatory.

New York Attorney General Letitia James called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate and said her office is also considering legal options.

"It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues," Ms. James said in a statement.

Amazon said the worker, Christian Smalls, received several warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. Amazon said Mr. Smalls showed up at the protest at the Staten Island warehouse Monday despite an order to remain home for 14 days with pay because he had come into contact with a co-worker who had been diagnosed with the virus.

But Mr. Smalls said his contact with the infected worker was limited and felt Amazon put him on leave to get him out of the way. He said he noticed the worker looked ill last Tuesday and encouraged the person in a brief conversation to go home.

Mr. Smalls said that Tuesday had been his first day back at work after more than a week because he had been using paid and unpaid time off to avoid going to a job where he felt exposed to the virus.

After the worker tested positive, Mr. Smalls said he and others workers asked if the warehouse would be shut down for cleaning but were told it would stay open. After that, Mr. Smalls said he spent the rest of the week going to the warehouse without clocking in, instead spending each day in the break room leading protests.

"Everybody is scared. People are scared to lose their jobs. Who's their voice? I'm their voice. It cost me my job but so be it," Mr. Smalls said.

Amazon said a small fraction of the 5,000 workers work at the warehouse joined the walkout. The company said it had asked "anyone who was in close contact with the diagnosed individual to stay home with pay" but did not specify how many.

The Seattle-based company said it has taken aggressive steps to protect its employees from the virus, including cleaning and distancing measures. Amazon is checking the temperature of anyone entering the Staten Island warehouse, a step the company said would be implemented in other facilities as soon as possible.

The company said it consults with local and federal health authorities on how to handle building closures if an employee tests positive, including evaluating the worker's interactions with others.

"We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe," Amazon said in a statement. "The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Several walkouts and protests have drawn attention to fear and discontent among low-wage workers on the front lines of the pandemic, particularly those packing and delivering groceries and other essentials for millions of people hunkering down at home.

A group of workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, planned to stage a "sick out" Tuesday to demand hazard pay, immediate closure, and cleaning of stores if a worker tests positive for the virus and health benefits for part-time and seasonal workers. It was unclear how widespread the protest was.

Whole Foods said the protest was being led by a "small but vocal group," including many who don't work for the company. In a statement, Whole Foods said the sick-out had "no operational impact" on its services.

Whole Foods said it offers workers up to two weeks of paid time off if they test positive for COVID-19 or are quarantined, an additional $2 per hour on top of hourly base pay, and increased overtime pay. Amazon is also offering an additional $2 per hour for its hourly workers.

Amazon is hiring 100,000 more workers to meet a surge in demand for deliveries, one of several companies that have announced such hiring sprees. Despite the hazards of the jobs, many people are applying as layoffs soar retail, restaurants, airlines, and other industries.

Instacart, the San Francisco-based grocery delivery app, is hiring 300,000 more contracted workers, saying orders have surged 150% in recent weeks compared to last year. Some Instacart workers walked off the job Monday to demand hazard pay and more protective gear against the virus.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Karen Matthews contributed to this story from New York.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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