Amazon may have violated federal worker safety laws and New York state’s whistleblower protections when it fired an employee from its Staten Island warehouse who protested the company’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a letter the office of the New York attorney general, Letitia James, sent the company last week.
The letter, which was earlier reported by National Public Radio, was confirmed by James’ office. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon has been under pressure for the safety of its hundreds of thousands of workers who are packing and shipping products to millions of homebound Americans in the pandemic. The company has rolled out various safety measures at its warehouses across the country, such as temperature checks and mandatory masks, but it has faced protests at several facilities from employees who have said they feel unsafe. As of early April, workers at more than 50 of its warehouses in the United States had contracted the coronavirus.
The case that James’ office has been looking into involves Christopher Smalls, an employee in Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse. In late March, Smalls agitated for more worker protections at the facility as co-workers began getting sick. On March 28, Amazon put Smalls on quarantine for having been in contact with a worker who had contracted the coronavirus.
On March 30, Smalls led a protest calling for Amazon to temporarily close the warehouse and provide workers more protections. Amazon fired him, saying Smalls had violated its policies by leaving his quarantine to attend the protest at the site.
That same day, James criticized the retailer for firing Smalls, saying state law protected people’s right to organize.
The firing attracted even more attention when leaked notes from an April 1 meeting of Amazon’s top executives showed they discussed making Smalls “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” One executive added that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate.” Amazon’s general counsel, who wrote the meeting notes, later apologized for the remarks.
Lawmakers have said those meeting notes showed that Amazon had planned to “smear” Smalls. They questioned why the company had put Smalls on quarantine more than two weeks after he had been exposed to the sick worker and just days before the protest.
James’ office has been in touch with Amazon since the incident. In the letter, the attorney general said Amazon’s safety measures were inadequate and might have violated provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The letter, which sought internal communications about worker organizing, also said there could be other cases of potential illegal retaliation.