Amazon warehouse workers’ concerns over safety and sanitation reached a tipping point this week, and rather than capitulate to staff demands, the company is hitting back.
On Monday, a number of employees at the company’s Staten Island distribution hub, dubbed JFK8, walked off the job to protest the company’s perceived lack of action after the first coronavirus case was confirmed at the location last week. Amazon reportedly declined to shut down the facility for a deep cleaning, and it has been up and running since the worker’s diagnosis.
The protest’s organizer, management assistant Chris Smalls, was fired on Monday, Amazon confirmed to Sourcing Journal in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
Smalls had been instructed to stay off Amazon premises through a 14-day paid leave period, due to the fact that he had come into close contact with an associate who was diagnosed with COVID-19, the company said.
Other employees were given similar directives, Amazon said, claiming that Smalls chose to ignore the order as he organized the walkout.
“We did not terminate Mr. Smalls employment for organizing a 15-person protest,” Kristen Kish, an Amazon spokesperson, told Sourcing Journal. “We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment.”
Smalls had received “multiple warnings” for “violating social distancing guidelines,” Kish said. She also reiterated that despite his contact with a sick associate and the subsequent instructions to stay home, “he came onsite further putting the teams at risk.”
If any Amazon associate is known to have been in close contact with a colleague who tests positive for COVID-19, Kish said, they’ll be asked to stay off Amazon premises. Giving those employees two weeks of paid leave is “a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” she said.
In recent weeks, workers at facilities across the globe have protested the company’s seeming lack of attention to proper safety protocols and sanitation measures, earning the ire of government authorities.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said the scandal surrounding Smalls’ firing was an issue of real concern, and called for an inquiry into the company’s actions.
“We heard from Staten Island, from the Amazon fulfillment center, a specific charge that a worker who raised health and safety concerns … was fired,” De Blasio said. He elaborated that his office’s unnamed source alleged that the company dismissed Smalls because he “spoke up for the safety of his fellow workers.”
“I have ordered the city’s Commission On Human Rights to investigate Amazon immediately, to determine if that’s true,” De Blasio said. “If so, that would be a violation of our city human rights law, and we would act on it immediately.”
The Sheriff’s office was called upon to inspect the JFK8 facility to ensure that social distancing measures were being observed, De Blasio said, and would “continue to inspect as needed.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James weighed in on the “disgraceful” firing as well.
“At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19,” she said in a statement Monday.
The “right to organize,” she added, “is codified into law” in the state of New York, and “any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.”
“At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane,” James said. “The Office of the Attorney General is considering all legal options, and I am calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate this incident.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.