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

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Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Workers at the facility, which has had numerous employees test positive for the coronavirus, want to call attention to what they say is a lack of protections for employees who continue to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Workers at the facility, which has had numerous employees test positive for the coronavirus, want to call attention to what they say is a lack of protections for employees who continue to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS)

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.

Smalls said the first confirmed employee with COVID-19 at the Staten Island facility, known as JFK8, was disclosed in a managers meeting March 24. "The crazy thing was, management told us not to tell the associates," said Smalls, who described himself as a manager assistant supervising 60 to 100 employees. "They were being very secretive about it."

Amazon said it communicates to all employees at a work site when one of their number is confirmed to have COVID-19, "not just to those who've come in close contact with the diagnosed individual."

Smalls said he began notifying workers after the managers meeting and also contacted New York and federal health officials and political leaders.

"I did everything I could to close that warehouse down so that it could be properly sanitized but the government is too overwhelmed to act right now," he said in the letter. "That's when I realized I would have to do something myself."

Amazon this week began testing a disinfectant fog at the Staten Island warehouse, which, like many others where the company has confirmed COVID-19-positive employees, has not been closed. Employees at more than 50 Amazon facilities in the U.S. - including in Everett and Kent - have tested positive, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Smalls - who has been involved with groups including Make the Road NY, which advocates for working class and immigrant groups and was critical of Amazon's proposed-then-abandoned second headquarters in New York - said he met with dozens of workers in common areas of the warehouse. He said they brought their demands for a shutdown and paid leave to the office of the general manager, but Amazon was unresponsive.

He and other employees decided to stage a walkout March 30, and began contacting reporters to attract attention. CNBC first reported the walkout plan on March 29.

Amazon said Smalls was verbally instructed March 28 to stay away from the workplace for 14 days on paid leave because he had close contact with another employee confirmed to have COVID-19. The company said other employees were told the same. The company said Smalls was repeatedly warned for violating social distancing guidelines and came onto the work site after being asked to self-quarantine.

He was fired March 30. Senior Amazon executives alleged Smalls "knowingly put our team at risk," and the company said it will take "swift, decisive action without concern about external reaction" when any employee does so.

The senators wrote Wednesday, "We hope this standard will be enforced equally across the organization and not just applied to the lowest-ranking workers who power it."

Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com

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