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Union urging Amazon workers not to sign deal just yet

Union organizers at Amazon.com are urging laid-off workers to delay signing an agreement, despite the company's decision to remove a non-disparagement provision.

    Union organizers at Amazon.com are urging laid-off workers to delay signing a separation agreement, despite the company's decision to remove a controversial provision that would have prohibited workers from making derogatory remarks about the company.

    Employees met with officials from the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers on Thursday to discuss their continuing concerns about the agreement. Among them: the loss of the right to sue Amazon for sexual harassment or racial discrimination, the lack of an end date for the contract, and the possibility that Amazon could fire workers before the last day stipulated by the agreement to avoid paying the severance package.

    Organizers planned to distribute fliers listing those concerns to co-workers on Friday.

    "Our lawyers feel that the entirety of this agreement is fairly wide-reaching and restrictive," organizers stated in a flier titled "Read this before you sign."

    "Due to (our) concerns, we are ultimately asking Amazon to fully withdraw the separation agreement. We should not have to sign away our rights in order to receive the full severance package."

    Amazon is asking employees to sign the separation agreement by next Friday.

    Organizers are pushing Amazon to provide a clear, nonlegal explanation of the agreement and to hold a meeting with affected employees to answer questions about the document. Employees still have a lot of unanswered questions about the agreement, said Marcus Courtney, an organizer with WashTech.

    "These are 17 pages of legalese that have serious implications for the rights of these employees, and the company is providing absolutely no information about what the documents mean," Courtney said.

    Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said she was unaware of the fliers and did not know if the company planned to address employee questions in any formal way.

    Amazon announced Tuesday that it was laying off 1,300 employees to cut costs. Many of those layoffs, which were concentrated in the company's Seattle-based customer service center and its Georgia distribution center, will not take effect until May.

    The separation agreement has already led to one brouhaha between Amazon and the laid-off employees. The company originally had a non-disparagement clause within the separation agreement but told employees to cross it out after WashTech urged workers not to agree to it.

    The separation agreement Amazon is asking employees to sign appears to be typical of other similar agreements, but employees are raising legitimate questions about it, said Vick Schachter, an employment law attorney with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Fenwick & West.

    Amazon can't prevent employees from filing complaints with government agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the National Labor Relations Board, he said. However, the agreement could limit employees' rights to sue Amazon in the future over workplace safety, discrimination or other issues, he said.

    "These are normal and understandable concerns," Schachter said. "They can choose whether or not they want to sign it. If they don't want to accept it, no one is forcing them to do it."