NEW YORK, N.Y.—Less than five hours after workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse and shipping center staged a lunch-hour walkout to protest inadequate virus-safety procedures, one of the main organizers was fired.
Amazon said it terminated Chris Smalls, a management assistant at the JFK8 fulfillment center, on Mar. 30 for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.”
The company claimed that Smalls had come onto the facility site despite being ordered to remain home with pay for 14 days after being “found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19,” and that was “unacceptable.” He had spoken at a rally of a few dozen workers in the facility’s parking lot.
“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” Smalls said in a statement. “I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug.”
“We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes,” he added.
Smalls told VICE News that he had had “less than five minutes” contact with the sick worker and that no others had been ordered to self-quarantine, including those who had spent more than ten hours a week with her.
Workers at JFK8 have said they believe there are more infected employees than the one or two the company has acknowledged. They have also complained about having minimal protections, with only a rationed amount of sanitary wipes and gloves.
“I’m considering all legal options & calling on the [National Labor Relations Board] to investigate,” New York State Attorney General Letitia James posted on Twitter Mar. 30. “Amazon, this is disgraceful.”
“Workers should be protected when speaking out about safety conditions during this crisis. They are performing a public service,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has been organizing Amazon workers in the New York area, said in a statement. “It is unacceptable that Amazon has terminated Chris Smalls for doing that today rather than addressing their serious COVID-19 safety problems.”
The Teamsters Union said Amazon’s retaliation against such workers was “outrageous, cruel and unconscionable” and are calling on Amazon to rehire Smalls.
“All workers deserve a safe and healthy workplace, a voice on the job, and an environment free from retaliation,” Teamsters JC 16 President George Miranda said in a statement. “This is even more imperative during moments of crisis such as this. Hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers, delivery drivers, truckers, retail workers and other logistics workers ensure that the people of New York get the vital food, medicines, and supplies that we need. As logistics workers, our jobs are essential, but our lives are not expendable.”
Miranda called it “inexcusable” for one of the most powerful companies in the world to attempt to silence workers standing up for safety amidst the pandemic.
“Amazon should immediately reinstate Chris Smalls and address the safety concerns of JFK8 workers and all the other Amazon workers rising up across the country,” Miranda added. “Corporations like Amazon have billions of dollars, but as workers our greatest power is solidarity. The New York Teamsters stand in solidarity with workers in New York and across the country who are collectively demanding that our lives be put ahead of corporate profits.”