Nine Democratic senators are calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to provide information on the firing of workers who called for greater protections from COVID-19. In a letter, the senators cite four workers who were fired after raising concerns about safety conditions at the company’s warehouses. Amazon has disputed that the firings were retaliatory, citing other policy violations.
“Given the clear public history of these four workers’ advocacy on behalf of health and safety conditions for workers in Amazon warehouses preceding their terminations, and Amazon’s vague public statements regarding violations of ‘internal policies,’ we are seeking additional information to understand exactly what those internal policies are,” the senators wrote.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ed Markey (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) signed the letter.
In late March, Amazon fired Christian Smalls after he organized a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse, JFK8. Amazon claimed Smalls was fired for violating quarantine by attending the walkout, but Smalls was only placed on quarantine after he started calling for greater safety precautions, and other co-workers with far greater exposure to COVID-19 were never placed on quarantine. A memo later obtained by Vice revealed Amazon executives planning to smear Smalls and make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
“These safety responses have not been sufficient”
On Tuesday, The Verge reported that a worker at JFK8 had died of COVID-19. At least 35 workers at the facility have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to alerts sent to workers. Two other Amazon warehouse workers, both in California, have died of the virus. Amazon workers at over 130 facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, according to alerts tallied by workers. The company has declined to release statistics on infections.
“Amazon has closed some warehouses for 48 hours for deep cleaning after employees test positive for coronavirus,” the senators wrote, “but these safety responses have not been sufficient.”
The letter also cites the firing of Bashir Mohamed, a warehouse worker in Minnesota who called for greater safety measures. Amazon said he was fired for safety violations and other policy infractions. Workers at other warehouses say social distancing guidelines are being enforced in ways that target workers who raise safety concerns.
Amazon also fired two user experience designers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, after their group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, began organizing an online panel where tech workers could hear from warehouse workers. Hundreds of tech workers subsequently organized a sick-out in protest of the firings and warehouse conditions. Last week, Amazon senior engineer and vice president Tim Bray resigned over the firings of whistleblowers.
Asked about the letter, an Amazon spokesperson disputed that the firings were retaliatory. “These individuals were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather, for violating—often repeatedly—policies, such as intimidation, physical distancing and more,” the company said in a statement. “We support every employees’ right to criticize or protest their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We look forward to explaining in more detail in our response to the Senators’ letter.”
The senators are asking Amazon to specify these policies and clarify its process for terminating employees. They’re also asking whether Amazon tracks potential organizing at warehouses, as it does with Whole Foods, or documents which workers participate in walkouts and protests.