Senate Democrats grill Amazon on warehouse worker firing, COVID-19 procedures

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Amazon’s fulfillment center in Dupont, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

A group of Democrats in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to Amazon on Wednesday questioning the company’s rationale for firing an employee who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse last month. The senators asked Amazon a series of questions about the worker’s termination and the company’s procedures for protecting employees against COVID-19.

Amazon said the employee activist, Christian Smalls, was fired for breaking quarantine and showing up at the facility after he had contact with a coworker who tested positive for COVID-19. Senators Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, Sherrod Brown, Richard Blumenthal, and Kirsten Gillibrand expressed skepticism of that story in the letter:

The employee was ordered into quarantine on March 28th and fired on March 30th; however, Amazon’s own spokesperson has stated that the diagnosed employee in question last reported for work on March 11th. That timeline would suggest that a 14-day quarantine would have ended on March 25th, and that the fired employee was not ordered into quarantine until more than two weeks after coming into contact with the diagnosed employee and after they had begun organizing their colleagues to demand more workplace transparency and stronger workplace protections.

The letter points to leaked meeting notes written by Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in which he called Smalls “not smart or articulate” and sought to make him the face of the labor movement in New York facility. The senators also asked Amazon to explain its rationale for deciding whether to close a fulfillment center that has an outbreak of COVID-19.

Amazon reiterated its past public statements when asked about the letter.

“We did not terminate Mr. Smalls employment for organizing a 15-person protest. We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment,” spokesperson Kristen Kish said in a statement. “Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. 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. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite further putting the teams at risk.”

At least 30 of the fulfillment centers that power Amazon’s e-commerce business have positive cases of the virus, according to local news reports and employee accounts. The mounting cases are sparking walkouts, frustration, and an unprecedented challenge for a tech company that finds itself at the center of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators’ letter says.

COVID-19 outbreaks at warehouses continue to pose a threat to Amazon’s operations and reputation. Workers at a fulfillment center in Pennsylvania were told this week not to handle shipments from another facility in the state with a severe outbreak for 24 hours.

Amazon says it is taking “extreme measures” to protect and compensate employees during the crisis, including raising the minimum wage for all workers by $2 to $17 per hour. The company expanded its paid and unpaid time off policies and is working to provide personal protective gear to all employees.

“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis—we have nearly 500,000 people in the U.S. alone supporting customers and we are taking measures to support each one,” Kish said.

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