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Amazon fires warehouse worker who organized Staten Island protest

Employees staged a walk out on Monday, as discontent grows louder over Amazon's handling of worker health during the pandemic.

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An Amazon worker taking part in Monday's protest outside the company's Staten Island warehouse.

Courtesy of Make the Road NY

Workers at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse took part in a walkout on Monday afternoon to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions. The demonstration came after at least one worker at that facility has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Amazon said later Monday that the protest brought out 15 employees, out of 5,000 workers at the facility. It also said Christian Smalls, who became a vocal organizer for the protest, was fired Monday for violating "multiple safety issues," including instructions from the company to stay home with pay for 14 days because he had been in close contact with an infected employee. He instead came to the warehouse Monday, the company said.

"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 an emailed statement released by protest organizers. "I am outraged and disappointed, but I'm not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe."

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday called the firing "immoral and inhumane." Her office is "considering all legal options" related to the firing and called the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.

In addition to Monday's strike, Whole Worker, a grassroots group of Whole Foods employees, is planning a "sick out" on Tuesday to protest conditions in the grocery stores. Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017. Separately, workers for the Instacart delivery service put together their own national strike on Monday.

All these demonstrations point to increased frustration and fear from rank-and-file workers in service and logistics jobs who still need to work in public while millions of other Americans are asked to stay home during the health emergency. Amazon has so far been able to ship packages to its customers during the crisis, albeit with delays, but more strikes and more workers falling ill could seriously hamper that work.

Amazon has repeatedly said it's working hard to protect employees from the coronavirus, including increased cleanings and more physical distancing at warehouses. Amazon said Monday that the "vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Employees and contractors have said Amazon isn't doing enough to protect them. One employee told CNET workers weren't given enough time to wash their hands if they cough or sneeze. Other workers have said efforts to keep workspaces and delivery vans clean aren't consistently followed.

As of Friday, more than a dozen Amazon warehouses in the US had at least one worker who had tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus.

In an emailed statement earlier Monday, an Amazon spokesperson called out Smalls, saying his claims are "simply unfounded."

"We have heard a number of incorrect comments from Christian Smalls, the hourly associate claiming to be the spokesperson on this topic," the spokesperson wrote. "Mr. Smalls is alleging many misleading things in his statements but we believe it's important to note that he is, in fact, on a 14-day self-quarantine requested by Amazon to stay home with full pay."

The spokesperson said Monday that Smalls had already been given multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines, which partly led to his firing.

The Staten Island facility is one of several around the country that has active and vocal workers who have been pushing Amazon for better working conditions, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Workers there held a demonstration in late November as well. Early last year, Justin Rashad Long, another employee at the Staten Island facility who spoke out about working conditions there, was fired for safety violations. 

Monday's protesters were joined by supporters from Athena, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY, three advocacy organizations that have often criticized Amazon's treatment of its workers.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, another organization that's worked with Amazon employees to hold public protests, sent out a statement Monday night to decry Smalls' firing. Amazon employees in the US aren't unionized.

"Workers should be protected when speaking out about safety conditions during this crisis," union president Stuart Appelbaum said. "They are performing a public service. It is unacceptable that Amazon has terminated Chris Smalls for doing that today rather than addressing their serious COVID-19 safety problems."

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