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Senators want details from Amazon on firing of New York coronavirus protest organizer

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Was Christian Smalls fired from Amazon for violating a quarantine or because he helped organize a walkout to protest safety conditions at a New York warehouse where employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19?

Five U.S. senators sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a series of questions in a letter Wednesday focusing on Smalls' dismissal, which he and other politicians, as well as union leaders, have described as retaliation.

Seattle-based Amazon has repeatedly insisted Smalls was fired "for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment," as company spokeswoman Kristen Kish said Wednesday in response to the letter from Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

"We have a zero tolerance for retaliation against employees who raise concerns," Kish said.

But suspicions Smalls was fired in retaliation for worker organizing were stoked last week when notes from a meeting of top Amazon executives, including Bezos, revealed a plan to smear Smalls and position him as the face of a worker organizing effort that, while still limited, has gained momentum amid the company's struggles with the novel coronavirus.

"The right to organize is a bedrock of our economy, responsible for many of the greatest advances achieved by workers over generations," the senators wrote, adding the meeting notes of Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky leaked last week compounded their concerns.

 

Zapolsky described Smalls as "not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we're trying to protect workers."

The senators cite an Amazon statement that an employee later diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, had worked at the Staten Island, New York, warehouse March 11. A two-week quarantine would have ended March 25, they noted. Smalls was told to quarantine March 28, two days before the walkout.

By Smalls' account, in the form of a letter of his own to Bezos published in The Guardian last week, he began voicing concerns about inadequate protective equipment and cleaning supplies and illnesses among co-workers in early March.

Amazon said it has procured adequate cleaning supplies and millions of masks ordered weeks ago are arriving now in its facilities. "We have enough masks for everyone at our operations sites and stores," the company said Wednesday.

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