Amazon has fired an employee at its Staten Island facility who organized a strike against his employer over conditions in the company’s warehouses amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, Amazon employees at the facility organized a strike against the company for conditions that have come under fire by employees, the workers group Amazonians United, and several U.S. senators. The collective action followed a positive case of covid-19 at the facility, which remained open despite concerns among employees that the individual could have spread the disease. The management assistant at JFK8 who led the strike and was fired, Chris Smalls, told CNBC that working inside the facility has been “scary,” adding that striking—despite it costing him his job—was “the right thing to do.”
“All we asked for was a simple building closure and then to be professionally sanitized,” Smalls told CNBC. “We had a confirmed case and people were afraid, and that’s all we were asking for.”
Smalls told the outlet he was asked to stay home by the company after interacting with an employee for “two to five minutes” in order to send her home, adding that the individual tested positive for covid-19. Smalls said that had he not, it’s possible the individual could have spread the disease among workers at the facility. Smalls told the outlet he returned to the facility daily to conduct meetings with management to ask for the temporary facility closure following the positive covid-19 case.
He also told the outlet that workers had not been provided with adequate personal protective equipment, and that the daily temperature scans the company recently instituted were unsatisfactory, as individuals with covid-19 can be asymptomatic.
In a statement, Amazon said that Smalls was fired after receiving “multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.”
“He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of covid-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” the company said. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”
Smalls, however, denied that he was placed on paid leave. Instead, he told CNBC, he believes the firing was a “targeted attack” for his public actions and comments against the company.
New York Attorney General Letitia James said Monday in a statement that it was “disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues.”
“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. Today, Chris Smalls was fired,” James said. “In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by 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. 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.”
Meanwhile, several lawmakers led by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar have also demanded answers about the way that Amazon has responded to the covid-19 crisis. In a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos last week, they asked that the company “intensify your efforts to protect the health and safety of your warehouse workers. No employee, especially those who work for one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, should be forced to work in unsafe conditions.”
Update 4/1/20: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday ordered an investigation of Amazon over the firing of the employee who led a strike over conditions at the facility in Staten Island during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve ordered the city’s commission on human rights to investigate Amazon immediately to determine if that’s true,” de Blasio during a news conference, per CNBC. “If so, that would be a violation of our city’s human rights law and we would act on it immediately.”