Amazon draws criticism for firing employee who led coronavirus protest

Chris Smalls says staff at the Amazon fulfillment center are at risk.

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An Amazon employee claims he was fired by the company after he led a protest against its coronavirus safety conditions. In an interview with Bloomberg, Chris Smalls, former assistant manager at Amazon's Staten Island fulfillment center, said that he and more than 60 colleagues walked off the job on Monday to demand Amazon close the center for proper cleaning. Smalls said his employment was subsequently terminated.

The protest was the latest in a string of coronavirus-related demonstrations held by Amazon employees. According to Smalls, staff have not been given adequate protective gear and many are fearful of contracting the virus and spreading it to their families. Protestors say that a number of their colleagues have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Amazon has confirmed that it fired Smalls, but says it did so because he violated safety rules, including failing to self-isolate after being exposed to a colleague with a confirmed case of the virus. In a statement to Bloomberg¸ Amazon said, "Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk. [He] was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we're taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came on site today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk."

The company also contested the number of employees involved in Monday's protest, claiming just 15 individuals from the facility took part. Smalls has dubbed Amazon's response "ridiculous" and said in the TV interview that "Because I tried to stand up for something that's right, the company decided to retaliate against me." He added, "I'm still going to continue to fight for those people inside of the building."

New York Attorney General Letitia James released a statement in response to the news. "It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues," she said on the Attorney General website. "At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19."

James also called for the National Labor Relations Board to intervene: "In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited. At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane. The Office of the Attorney General is considering all legal options, and I am calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate this incident."