Senators demand answers about Amazon firing activist employees

The group of lawmakers raises its concerns after at least six Amazon workers involved in protests against the company were terminated.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read

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Nine liberal US senators are questioning Amazon's leaders over the firings of several activist employees who spoke out about alleged unsafe warehouse conditions during the coronavirus pandemic

The nine senators sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Wednesday, asking for more details on the company's disciplinary and termination policies, mentioning four workers who were fired "following their public whistleblowing."

The lawmakers, several of them frequent Amazon critics, are Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Edward Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Kamala Harris and Tammy Baldwin.

"Given the clear public history of these four workers' advocacy on behalf of health and safety conditions for workers in Amazon warehouses preceding their terminations," the letter says, "and Amazon's vague public statements regarding violations of 'internal policies,' we are seeking additional information to understand exactly what those internal policies are."

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Amazon on Thursday defended the firings, calling them unrelated and isolated incidents.

"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," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "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 is under enormous pressure from its workers and elected officials during the pandemic, with employees staging multiple demonstrations over the past two months and lawmakers repeatedly questioning Amazon's safety practices. Adding to these criticisms, Tim Bray, a prominent engineer and Amazon vice president, quit in protest a week ago over these firings and said it was clear they were "turfed for whistleblowing."

Amazon has often defended its efforts to protect its hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers, citing temperature checks, deep cleanings and provisions of masks and gloves. Bezos last week said his company plans to spend $4 billion this quarter for additional protections and testing capabilities.

However, dozens of its warehouses have had confirmed coronavirus cases and four warehouse employees have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to media reports confirmed by the company. Amazon has declined to disclose the total number of coronavirus cases and coronavirus-related deaths of its workers.

Among the employees the senators cited in their letter was Christian Smalls, who was terminated in late March after organizing a protest at his Staten Island warehouse that same day. The company said he was fired for violating a paid quarantine order. A few days later, Vice reported that Amazon's top lawyer, David Zapolsky, criticized Smalls in a leaked memo, saying Smalls was "not smart, or articulate."

Booker, Brown, Gillibrand, Blumenthal and Sen. Bob Menendez sent a similar letter raising concerns about Smalls' firing a month ago. New York Attorney General Letitia James in late April said Amazon may have violated the state's whistleblower laws when it fired Smalls.

In mid-April, news came out that Amazon fired two tech workers, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, as well as Bashir Mohamed, a warehouse employee in Minnesota. All three were mentioned in the senators' letter.

Amazon said Cunningham and Costa were fired for "violating internal policies, including our solicitation policy by utilizing company resources to solicit money and signatures from their colleagues." The women, both leaders of the activist group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, said they had shared an invitation for a virtual meeting for employees to discuss warehouse conditions. They were soon after terminated. Mohamed, who has been involved in worker demonstrations, was fired for "progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language/behavior."

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CNET in late April reported on Gerald Bryson, another Amazon warehouse employee in Staten Island who was involved in the protests there and fired for alleged harassment and inappropriate language. The Wall Street Journal reported on the termination of Courtney Bowden, who was pushing for paid time off for part-time workers.

Also on Thursday, Amazon employees and several worker advocacy groups said they delivered thousands of signatures to Bezos and Amazon executive Jay Carney, calling for the restoration of a policy allowing workers to take unlimited unpaid time off during the health crisis. The policy ended May 1, with workers now required to submit for personal or medical leaves of absence.

Additionally, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline on Thursday said he will, if necessary, subpoena Bezos to testify on antitrust concerns about his company. Bezos, he said, appeared to be dragging his feet on committing to appear before Congress.