Leaders of America’s largest labor unions, 45 New York elected officials and a group of Amazon employees called on Amazon to change its warehouse policies and practices in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Their letter, to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and other senior executives, amplifies calls made by Amazon warehouse workers, including some who went on strike in New York on Monday to protest the company’s handling of the outbreak. An unknown number of Amazon employees around the company’s fulfillment and delivery network — including a confirmed coronavirus case at a Seattle-area warehouse last week — have fallen ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as the pandemic has strained its operations like never before.
The letter marks a new level of focus on Amazon by organized labor, which previously has had little success organizing the company’s workers outside of Europe, and comes amid growing unrest among gig economy and warehouse workers whose services have taken on new importance amid widespread stay-at-home orders and economic disruptions.
“You claim to have adopted a number of practices to sanitize worksites and protect workers,” said top executives of unions including the AFL-CIO; American Federation of Teachers; Service Employees International Union; United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees; and Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. “But a compelling number of workers have come forward — and even run the incredible personal risk of walking off the job — to report that the actual situation in warehouses does not match Amazon’s public relations statements.”
Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish called the accusations in the letter “simply unfounded,” and recounted in a statement some of the company’s “proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including” increased cleaning, social distancing requirements and new procedures for delivery drivers. Those measures have not included closing either the Staten Island, New York, or Kent fulfillment centers for cleaning after employees working there tested positive for COVID-19. The company said it has followed the recommendations of local health authorities.
The striking Staten Island workers wanted the building there closed for sanitation and employees sent home with pay. The labor leaders and New York politicians called for those measures and more.
They said in the letter that Amazon should put in place independent monitors “to ensure compliance with CDC and other governing health guidelines,” cancel productivity requirements, and provide retroactive pay for workers who took unpaid time off in the last month because of the pandemic, among other things.
They also called on Amazon to reinstate Staten Island warehouse worker Chris Smalls, an organizer and spokeswoman for the walkout Monday. Smalls was fired for violating a 14-day quarantine after he had close contact with an Amazon employee who tested positive for COVID-19 and repeatedly violating social distancing guidelines, Kish said.
“We did not terminate Mr. Smalls employment for organizing a 15-person protest,” Kish said, rebutting statements by the walkout’s organizers that 60 people participated. “We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment.”
Smalls and the labor leaders saw it as retaliation for organizing the strike, and New York authorities were considering investigations. New York State Attorney General Letitia James said Monday her office “is considering all legal options” in relation to Smalls firing. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday he had ordered the city’s Commission on Human Rights to “investigate Amazon immediately” as well as determine whether Smalls was retaliated against.
“[W]e are outraged to hear that not only did Amazon executives NOT promptly address the concerns being articulated by your own workers, but you actually fired one of the lead whistle-blowers immediately following his courageous action Monday,” the labor leaders said in the letter.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.