Five U.S. Senators have some questions for Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
In a Wednesday letter addressed to Bezos, Senators Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Richard Blumenthal, Robert Menendez and Kirsten Gillibrand raised questions regarding Amazon’s working conditions and inquired about the firing of a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse worker.
On March 30, 15 of 5,000-plus employees at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse participated in protest of against a purported lack of protections at the location after a worker was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Amazon had said 15 employees participated in the demonstration while some media reports indicated 100 or so employees intended to join the protest. Christian Smalls, who led the employee walkout, was fired shortly afterward, but Amazon attributed his termination to his receipt of “multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.” Smalls, Amazon said, had come into contact with a worker who tested positive for the coronavirus and was told to stay home, with pay, for 14 days.
“We terminated [Smalls’] employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment, Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty told FN.
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However, the senators said some “have disputed the timeline that would make that violation possible.”
“Amazon’s own spokesperson has stated that the diagnosed employee in question last reported for work on March 11. That timeline would suggest that a 14-day quarantine would have ended on March 25, 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 senators wrote.
The senators also raised concerns regarding overall working conditions throughout Amazon’s facilities, noting that workers at the Staten Island warehouse claimed they were in short supply of personal protective equipment and that employees of other Amazon facilities have alleged that supplies such as hand sanitizer and disinfectant are being rationed or “at times are wholly unavailable.”
“Amazon has recently said ‘[w]hen anyone on our team at any level purposely puts the health of others at risk, we will take swift, decisive action without concern about external reaction.’ We hope this standard will be enforced equally across the organization and not just applied to the lowest-ranking workers who power it,” the Senators wrote. “Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk.”
Last week, Amazon said that it would conduct temperature checks and provide face masks to staff members in all of its warehouses in the United States and Europe, as well as to workers of its Whole Foods stores.
“Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are already standard across our network, and the procurement teams have worked tirelessly to create new sources of supply to keep these critical items flowing,” said Dave Clark, SVP of worldwide operations, in a statement.
Due to its status as an essential retailer, Amazon has continued operating its warehouses, even in the states and localities that have implemented stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The e-tailer has seen a spike in demand for certain products as panicked shoppers load up on household goods and shop online instead of in stores. To keep up, it announced last month that it is hiring an additional 100,000 workers to staff its warehouses and deliver packages.
“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,” Lighty said. “. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country.”
This story has been updated to include Amazon’s response.