Federal lawmakers press Bezos on Amazon’s firing of employee activists as antitrust probe looms

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Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in June 2019. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Nine Senate Democrats asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to explain the rationale for firing four employees who spoke out about the company’s workplace safety policies in a letter sent to the executive Wednesday.

The lawmakers added their voices to a chorus of criticism over Amazon’s response to the coronavirus crisis and decision to fire the employee activists.

What’s new: Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and several of their colleagues asked Bezos to explain Amazon’s policies for employee discipline and termination “to understand how the termination of employees that raised concerns about health and safety conditions did not constitute retaliation for whistleblowing” by May 20. “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 letter says.

Background: Last month, Amazon fired user experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, outspoken leaders of the activist group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. They spent more than a year pressuring their employer to enact stronger sustainability policies before turning their attention to the COVID-19 outbreaks at Amazon fulfillment centers. Two warehouse workers who called for broader safety measures were also terminated last month. An influential Amazon engineer and VP resigned from the company last week in response to the firings.

Amazon’s side: “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,” an Amazon spokesperson told GeekWire. “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.”

In context: Federal lawmakers aren’t just scrutinizing Amazon for its labor practices. The House subcommittee on antitrust sent a separate letter to Bezos earlier this month asking him to testify before Congress. They want Bezos to explain apparent inconsistencies between the testimony of one of his deputies last year and recent news reports that indicate Amazon uses third-party seller data to compete with those vendors in its marketplace. Rep. David Cicilline suggested Thursday that Bezos is reluctant to testify in a live-streamed interview with Politico.

Big picture: Amazon is waging war against the pandemic on two fronts. Seemingly overnight, Amazon became a lifeline for thousands of people sheltering at home around the world. Demand for Amazon products and services surged, compelling the company to hire an additional 175,000 workers to keep up. Amazon is managing customer demand but struggling to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in its warehouses, creating a logistical and PR nightmare for the company. The virus has broken out in more than 130 warehouses, according to internal employee counts and local news reports. Amazon has not disclosed the number of employees or warehouses with the virus. At least three Amazon workers have died from COVID-19, according to the letter senators sent to Bezos this week.

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