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Amazon's leaders send mixed messages on worker strikes

Competing statements from two top Amazon leaders point to struggles running the retail giant during the coronavirus crisis.

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Amazon employees held a walkout at a Staten Island fulfillment center Monday.

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Amazon's leadership is having trouble getting its message straight.

On Thursday, Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations, wrote a blog post defending the online retail giant's handling of the ongoing coronavirus crisis and praising the company's employees for their efforts. He also said Amazon respects employees' rights to demonstrate against the company.

Around the same time, Vice published parts of a leaked memo written by David Zapolsky, Amazon's top legal executive, that criticized a fired warehouse worker who organized a strike.

The conflicting messages underscore how difficult it has been for Amazon to navigate the turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed tens of thousands of people worldwide. The pandemic reached a grim milestone on Tuesday as infections hit 1 million cases, including several Amazon employees. The world's largest e-commerce company has been scrutinized during the health emergency, facing criticism from its employees and elected officials over its ability to keep its warehouse and delivery workforce healthy during the crisis.

Added to that, Amazon has struggled to deliver items to millions of customers, who've been asked to stay home, as it faces a huge spike in demand.

Following a handful of worker strikes at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores across the country this week, Clark said Thursday the company supports demonstrators' legal right to protest and understands employees' concerns about risking their safety coming into work. He added that 150 new safety protocols have already been added into Amazon's huge logistics operations.

He said that these strikes have occurred at "a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands."

Clark said these protesters aren't afforded "a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues." Though he didn't identify a specific individual, Clark was referencing Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island who was fired on Monday after breaking a company-mandated quarantine because he had been in close contact with another employee who tested positive for the virus. Smalls broke the quarantine to attend a rally he had helped organize at his warehouse.

Clark's blog post appeared as Vice reported that Zapolsky appeared to insult Smalls in a leaked internal memo, saying Smalls is "not smart, or articulate." Zapolsky offered a contrite statement to Vice about the memo, saying: "I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."

Amazon leaders have stood by Smalls' firing Smalls but have faced a torrent of criticism for the move amid an already emotional and tense situation. Many employees are fearful and frustrated about Amazon's efforts to protect them while they're at work. Additionally, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James have called for investigations into the firing.

On Wednesday, a group of New York lawmakers and union representatives demanded his reinstatement. Amazon's US workforce isn't unionized.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a frequent critic of Amazon, blasted Zapolsky's comments.

"Amazon's behavior is disgusting!" Appelbaum said. "Rather than focusing on trying to fix the serious COVID-19 safety issues which threaten their own employees, they choose instead to smear the courageous whistle-blower." 

Amazon defended the firing despite the criticism.

"When anyone on our team at any level purposely puts the health of others at risk, we will take swift, decisive action without concern about external reaction," Clark said. "We did not, and have not ever, terminated an associate for speaking out on their working conditions."