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Amazon Ordered to Reinstate Fired Warehouse Employee After ‘Skewed Investigation’

An administrative law judge ruled Monday that Amazon must reinstate a fired warehouse employee who was a top critic of the e-commerce giant’s workplace safety policies in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gerald Bryson, who worked at the Staten Island, N.Y. warehouse known as JFK8, helped lead a March 2020 protest against the tech titan alongside terminated employee-turned-labor organizer Christian Smalls. As part of that protest, a number of employees walked off the job to protest the company’s perceived lack of action after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed at the warehouse.

JFK8 has recently been the center of attention for unionization efforts among some Amazon employees, with workers at the location voting to unionize earlier this month. At the front of that push has been Smalls, who founded the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) as the unionization efforts ramped up. Amazon initially terminated Smalls for violating the company’s 14-day quarantine and social distancing policy for workers testing positive for Covid-19, which they said he broke when he returned to the campus to protest.

Bryson’s dismissal came shortly after Smalls’ termination. During an April 2020 rally, Bryson got into a dispute with another worker, with a recording of the argument laid out in court filings documenting the profanities and insults that Bryson and the woman traded during a heated minutes-long exchange.

In the altercation, Bryson said Amazon should “shut [the warehouse] down” for failing to adequately protect workers against Covid-19, while Dimitra Evans replied “Ain’t gonna shut it down. It’s the only ******* job open so appreciate it.”

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The account indicates thaat Evans tried to incite Bryson with comments such as “Make me [shut up].”

In the wake of the incident, which was broadcast on Facebook Live, Amazon then fired Bryson for violating the company’s vulgar-language policy but let Evans off with a written warning.

Judge Benjamin Green said in his ruling that Amazon “failed to explain why her conduct was meaningfully different than the conduct of Bryson.”

“The respondent’s rush to judgement and skewed investigation designed to blame only Bryson for the April 6 argument provides such circumstantial evidence that the respondent wanted to discharge Bryson for his protected concerted activity instead of fairly evaluating the incident,” Green wrote in the 31-page decision.

Documents show Evans told Bryson to “go back to the Bronx.” Green noted in his summary: “Bryson could reasonably construe the comment as racial since he is African-American and might question why, other than his race, someone would assume he is from the Bronx.”

Bryson testified that he mentioned that comment to an Amazon manager who denied this version of events. But the judge sided with Bryson’s account, saying it was unlikely that he would “fail to convey such a prominent remark to which he had a strong reaction.”

In its investigation, Amazon “preferred not to obtain information from someone who was protesting with Bryson even though that person was likely in the best position to explain what happened,” according to Green. Instead, he said Amazon submitted multiple “one-sided” witness accounts, adding he found it implausible the statements were made “unless such accounts were solicited from them.”

In the ruling, Green said Amazon engaged in an “unfair labor practice” in terminating Bryson, and must offer him his job back, as well as lost wages and benefits resulting from his “discriminatory discharge.”

The dispute with Bryson has stretched on since June 2020, when he filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB, claiming Amazon retaliated against him for his role in the worker protests.

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement that the company will appeal the ruling.

“We strongly disagree with the NLRB judge’s ruling and remain surprised the NLRB would want any employer to condone Mr. Bryson’s behavior,” the spokesperson said. “Mr. Bryson was fired for bullying, cursing at, and defaming a female co-worker over a bullhorn in front of the workplace. What’s more, this was all broadcast on social media. He’s remained unapologetic and the videos remain online to this day. We do not tolerate that type of conduct in our workplace and intend to appeal this decision.”

Amazon is currently seeking to challenge the results of the Staten Island unionization election and has cited the NLRB’s effort to reinstate Bryson as one argument for why the election process was tainted.

The NLRB also pushed for Bryson’s reinstatement in a federal lawsuit filed last month, using a provision of the National Labor Relations Act that allows it to seek temporary relief in federal court while a case goes through the administrative law process.

Amazon has used the case as one of its objections over the Staten Island election results, accusing the agency of tainting the vote by pursuing Bryson’s reinstatement in the lead-up to the election.

Although a Bessemer, Ala. Amazon warehouse vote went against unionization for a second time, the election is still in contention as the union that represented the facility’s workers filed objections to the e-commerce giant’s victory with the NLRB. Just like after the first vote in 2021, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union alleged that Amazon interfered with the right of these facility employees to vote in a “free and fair election.”

Regardless of the Alabama outcome, this ongoing battle and the one in New York will continue to garner nationwide attention and potentially motivate other workers to organize over pay, working conditions and safety. Morgan Stanley estimates that every 1 percent of Amazon’s frontline workforce that unionizes would lead to an incremental $150 million in annual operating expenses.