US senators ask Amazon why it keeps firing COVID-19 whistleblowers

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren sent a letter requesting more info.

Tobias Schwarz / Reuters

A group of nine senators, including past presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, want to know why Amazon keeps firing COVID-19 whistleblowers. The senators penned a letter to the company asking about its “policies for discipline and termination regarding workers who raise health and safety concerns” in order to determine that the spate of recent firings “did not constitute retaliation for whistleblowing.”

The letter cites four employees who have been terminated after criticizing Amazon’s response to the pandemic. It also notes that more than 100 Amazon workers have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 and at least three Amazon warehouse employees have died. The letter says Amazon’s safety responses, including closing some warehouses for 48 hours in order to deep clean after employees test positive, have been insufficient.

Earlier this week, AWS vice president Tim Bray quit over what he sees is an attempt to punish whistleblowers who express concerns about lacking COVID-19 protections. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board is looking into claims of retaliation against employees who organize or participate in protests.

In a statement provided to Engadget, an Amazon spokesperson said:

“These individuals were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather, for violating—often repeatedly—policies, such as intimidation, physical distancing and more. We support every employees’ right to criticize or protest their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We look forward to explaining in more detail in our response to the Senators’ letter.”

Amazon has responded to criticism around its coronavirus response with a pledge to provide masks and conduct temperature scans, and CEO Jeff Bezos said the company will spend $4 billion on COVID-19 related expenses, including “keeping employees safe.” But Amazon is facing pressure abroad too, and it is being questioned regarding alleged data abuse.

As The Verge notes, in the past, Amazon has justified firing outspoken employees with vague claims that they violated internal policies. But with increased pressure on several fronts and big names like Sanders and Warren behind this letter, Amazon may have to offer a more in depth explanation.

Update 5/7/2020 3:05PM ET: This story was updated to include a statement from Amazon.