Amazon’s labor practices have come under investigation by New York’s top law enforcement officer after it fired a Staten Island warehouse worker who called attention to the company’s purported lack of safety measures for employees amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a letter sent to the Seattle-based retailer on April 22, Attorney General Letitia James wrote that Amazon may have violated federal worker health and safety laws as well as the state’s whistleblower protections with its decision to terminate the employment of Christian Smalls.
The letter was first reported on Monday by the National Public Radio, and FN has reached out to the attorney general’s office for comment. Last month, James condemned the firing as “immoral and inhumane.”
In a statement to FN, Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty wrote, “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.”
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On March 30, 15 of the online powerhouse’s 5,000-plus employees at its Staten Island warehouse had participated in a walkout to protest an alleged lack of protections after a worker was diagnosed with COVID-19. (Amazon had said 15 associates joined in on the demonstration while some media reports indicated 100 or so employees had intended to participate.)
Christian Smalls, who led the employee walkout, was fired shortly afterward. Amazon said he was terminated after receiving “multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.” The company said that Smalls reported to work onsite despite instructions to stay home for two weeks with pay after coming into “close contact” with an associate who tested positive for the virus.
Amazon is classified as an essential retailer in the U.S., allowing it to continue operating its warehouses even in the states and localities that have implemented stay-at-home orders. At the same time, the online powerhouse has had to contend with workers across its ranks falling ill with COVID-19, and other elected officials have also raised concerns regarding conditions in the facilities.
Early this month, five U.S. senators — including former Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos inquiring about Smalls’ firing. They also expressed concerns about short supplies of personal protective equipment following reports that the retailer had masks and gloves only in “limited quantities.”
“Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees,” Lighty added. “We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country.”