Tim Bray’s resignation from Amazon in protest of its firing worker activists has sparked a rare public debate among the company’s engineering elite, with at least two other top engineers posting responses online Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Amazon confirmed that one of its warehouse employees in New York died of COVID-19 — the fifth known pandemic death among the company’s U.S. workforce — and an employee in Oregon sued the company, alleging she was fired after falling ill with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Bray quit “in dismay” over the firing of two leaders of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) group, with which he was aligned, who had lately advocated for the company’s hourly workers and maligned its pandemic response.
Brad Porter, a vice president and distinguished engineer — the same level technologist as Bray was — did not address the dismissals in a LinkedIn post. Instead, he recounted several company safety measures and hinted at new ones to come involving robotics and drones. He also disagreed with Bray’s characterizations of the speed of Amazon’s pandemic response and treatment of workers as “fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” calling the latter “deeply offensive to the core.”
This public back-and-forth about a controversial, high-profile topic is unusual for a company that has lately enforced policies limiting what employees can say publicly without authorization, and for the seniority of those involved. Amazon has about 20 distinguished engineers, according to Porter, out of 935,000 employees.
“We have significant impact on the technical direction of the company. We also have a significant voice in the culture of the company,” Porter said.
A company spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether Porter, and a principal engineer who also weighed in publicly, sought prior approval for their posts.
Bray, a well-respected veteran technologist who resigned Friday after more than five years at Amazon, said on his personal blog he believes the company’s messaging that it is prioritizing safety, but added “that you don’t turn a supertanker on a dime.” Bray’s post had attracted some 550 comments, largely complimentary, as of midday Wednesday.
“Amazon is more like an ant farm that can adapt extremely quickly,” said Porter, who leads robotics work in the company’s worldwide operations group, the division responsible for carrying out the company’s core e-commerce fulfillment and delivery functions, which have been stressed like never before as demand has surged with the pandemic.
“I believe a strong case can be made that Amazon has responded more nimbly to this crisis than any other company in the world,” said Porter, citing artificial intelligence technology used to review compliance with social distancing, new processes allowing people to work at least 6 feet apart from each other, the procurement of hard-to-find face masks and temperature-screening thermal cameras and the company’s efforts to test its own employees for COVID-19.
(It took Amazon three weeks to begin temperature screening, despite employees requesting the measure internally and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations issued March 11 for the Seattle area and other regions with early outbreaks that all workplaces screen each employee daily.)
Porter said Amazon has other new measures coming, including contact tracing, mobile ultraviolet sanitation technologies and undisclosed developments involving Porter’s Prime Air drone delivery and robotics group.
Porter, with Amazon for 13 years, said “safety dictated everything” in the company’s operations division, noting any new usage of robotics technology “is expected to significantly exceed the safety benchmarks set by the existing process.”
On the company’s COVID-19 response, Porter acknowledged not everyone is convinced the company is doing enough. “When you have hundreds of thousands of people coming to work every day who are all experiencing this pandemic differently, you cannot expect everyone to react the same way,” he said.
Anton Okmyanskiy, a principal engineer in the Amazon Web Services division in Vancouver, B.C., where Bray worked, said in a LinkedIn post that his former colleague’s critique of Amazon’s power structures within the broader context of 21st-century capitalism “struck a chord with me.”
“As a society, we have perfected capitalism to the point of a crazy prosperity gap,” Okmyanskiy said in the post, which he described as “just my personal opinion” and not a corporate response. He added that Amazon, by virtue of its size, “is a mere reflection of our societal norms. It is not evil, but its focus on bottom line can be blinding.”
Okmyanskiy, who by his own account “vocally encouraged employee participation in climate activism” at the company though he does not agree with everything AECJ activists are demanding and prefers different means, called for Amazon to become “a leader on social justice issues.” He praised Amazon’s efforts on climate change, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and paid parental leave, noting that when CEO Jeff Bezos wants to make a change, the company can do so quickly.
Okmyanskiy said the company should start with paid sick leave, calling its lack among many North American businesses “barbaric.” (Amazon offers paid sick time “based on local, city and state ordinances.” It gives a minimum of 24 hours of paid personal time off a year to employees working at least 20 hours a week, as well as paid vacation.)
“Let’s act like humans!” he said, extending the call “to all companies, not just Amazon. I do want Amazon to show the best example though.”
Amazon has said employees who fall ill with coronavirus would be given two weeks of paid leave, though some employees say they’ve had trouble proving to the company that they were indeed infected and collecting this pay. Amazon allowed employees to take unlimited unpaid time off as part of its pandemic response, but that policy ended May 1. Employees who miss work now risk losing their jobs amid dramatic spikes in unemployment, though the company has a process to apply for unpaid leaves of absence.
Enesha Yurchak, a 35-year-old on-site medical representative at an Amazon warehouse in Salem, Oregon, sued the company in Multnomah County Circuit Court, The Oregonian reported. Yurchak alleges she was fired after taking nearly four weeks of leave beginning March 18 after coming down with what she suspected was COVID-19. According to her complaint, she had previously raised concerns with a supervisor about cleaning procedures for safety harnesses.