SEATTLE – Amazon has fired two employees who were outspoken critics of its climate policies and who had publicly denounced the conditions at its warehouses as unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus has spread widely, infecting workers in at least 74 warehouses and delivery facilities across the country, according to Amazon and media reports. Some warehouse workers have staged small demonstrations in response.
And Amazon acknowledged Tuesday that a manager in its Hawthorne, California, warehouse died on March 31, the first reported coronavirus-related death among its workers.
One of the fired workers, Emily Cunningham, a user experience designer who is part of the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, had offered on Twitter to match donations up to $500 to Amazon warehouse workers. In that tweet, she wrote that a lack of safe and sanitary working conditions “puts them and the public at risk.”
Cunningham said late Monday that she was fired Friday afternoon.
Maren Costa, a principal user experience designer who is also part of the employee climate group, said she also was fired Friday. Costa has retweeted criticism from Cunningham, as well as from groups supporting the activist warehouse workers, about Amazon’s policies on protecting warehouse staff. Costa, too, offered via Twitter to match donations up to $500 for warehouse workers “while they struggle to get consistent, sufficient protections and procedures from our employer.”
Separately, Amazon confirmed Tuesday it fired a worker at a Minnesota warehouse who had been an activist calling for safer working conditions.
Amazon fired the techworkers for “repeatedly violating internal policies,” spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement.
“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” Herdener said.
Amazon’s external communications policy prohibits employees from commenting publicly on its business without corporate justification and approval from executives. Herdener previously said the policy did not allow employees to “publicly disparage or misrepresent the company.”
(Amazon chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“Because of how effective we’ve been in getting Amazon to take leadership in the climate crisis, they’ve wanted me gone for a while,” Cunningham said.
Costa believes she was fired for her outspokenness as well.
“They were targeting the most visible leaders in an attempt to silence everyone,” Costa said Monday night.
Amazon fired Costa in a video call while she worked at home, with her 13-year-old son in the next room. After the call, her son asked if she’d been fired for her climate activism, she said. When she told him she was, he asked if she regretted it.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t. Not at all. I’m doing this for you,’ ” Costa said.
The 35-year-old California worker who died was an operations manager. Business Insider first reported his death.
The Minnesota warehouse worker fired, Bashir Mohamed, was involved in labor organizing and had been advocating for more rigorous measures to protect against the transmission of the coronavirus, according to BuzzFeed, which first reported his firing.
Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish said the fired was not retaliatory, but rather the “result of progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language, behavior, and violating social distancing guidelines.”
Last month, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island, after he raised concerns to several media outlets, including The Post, about working conditions. New York Attorney General Letitia James called the firing “disgraceful” and asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident, and five U.S. senators, including former Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, sent Bezos a letter raising concerns about Smalls’s firing.
Amazon said the dismissal was related to Smalls’s ignoring a request from his manager to stay home after contact with a worker who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Cunningham has been a vocal critic of Amazon’s climate policies, criticizing them at the company’s shareholder meeting last May. Subsequently, she condemned Amazon’s work with oil and gas companies on social media and in news reports.
Late last year, Amazon warned Costa, who also denounced the company’s climate practices, that she risked being fired for “speaking about Amazon’s business in a public forum.”
In January, more than 350 employees engaged in a mass defiance of company communications policy to support Costa and others, calling out Amazon for its climate policy, its work with federal agencies and its attempts to stifle dissent in a post on Medium.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an outspoken critic of Amazon’s use of the federal tax code to generate a net benefit while earning $11 billion in 2018, ripped the company and Bezos for leaving its employees to raise funds for colleagues as they work in warehouses.
“That is obscene,” Sanders told The Post. “Maybe – just maybe – the wealthiest man in the world can afford to provide a safe and dignified existence to all of his workers and end Amazon’s involvement in fossil fuel extraction, instead of just firing employees who are demanding justice and an end to the hypocrisy.”
In criticizing Amazon’s warehouse policies, Cunningham and Costa joined a chorus of politicians, unions and others clamoring for Amazon to improve workplace conditions.
For the past month, warehouse employees in Europe and the United States have sounded alarms that the company wasn’t taking enough steps to protect them from the virus. Workers complained about policies that push them to meet the per-hour rate at which the company wants orders fulfilled, a practice that they worry discourages safe sanitary practices such as washing hands after a cough or sneeze. Others have complained about “stand-up” meetings, where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the start of each shift.
Amazon has since taken steps to address those issues, including giving warehouse workers masks and checking the temperatures of employees as they begin shifts, sending workers home for three days if they register 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the company said.
Despite losing her job, Cunningham said she has no regrets.
“I know I’m going to be OK,” she said. “These times are going to require us to be our bravest, best selves.”