As It Happens

Fired Amazon employee who staged walkout says company is trying to 'smear' him

An Amazon employee who was fired after staging a walkout says the company is taking personal shots at him in order to distract from the bigger picture — which is the health and safety of all workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Amazon says Chris Smalls was sacked for violating quarantine orders; N.Y. AG calls for investigation 

Chris Smalls holds a sign outside Amazon building during a walkout in Staten Island on March 30. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)


An Amazon employee who was fired after staging a walkout says the company is taking personal shots at him in order to distract from the bigger picture — the health and safety of all workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

"They're afraid to answer to the public and the employees, so they want to try to just smear me. It's not going to work," Chris Smalls told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"They want to put it on Amazon vs. Chris Smalls. It's not going to happen. It's going to be Amazon vs. the people."

Smalls was fired last month after he helped organize a walkout at a Staten Island Amazon facility in New York City. 

Amazon says it fired Smalls for repeatedly violating orders to quarantine himself after he had contact with an infected employee. Smalls denies he broke any Amazon health policies, and says he's being punished for speaking out. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James called the firing "disgraceful" and called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate. 

"At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19," James said in a statement.

"In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited."

'Not smart or articulate'

Since he was fired, Smalls has continued to speak out in the media against what he says are unsanitary practices at Amazon that put workers at risk of spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Workers have organized walkouts across the U.S., demanding access to sick days, better protection at work and more transparency about infection rates in Amazon facilities.

Workers from at least 19 of Amazon's U.S. warehouses, including in Staten Island, have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to various media reports. The company has not confirmed these numbers. 

A worker in a face mask walks by trucks parked at an Amazon facility on Long Island in New York on March 17. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

In leaked memos obtained by Vice News, the online retail giant's lawyer suggests making Smalls "the face of the entire union/organizing movement," calling him "not smart or articulate."

"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," Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky reportedly wrote in a memo that was circulated widely to Amazon executives.

Amazon did not confirm the authenticity of the memo, but Zapolsky has since apologized.

"I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus COVID-19. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me," he said in a statement.

Smalls called Zapolsky's comments "disgusting."

"It never was about me," he said. "I was just trying to raise concern for people in my building. But obviously, people all over the world are relating to the same situation, and it started a revolution."

'Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams'

Amazon denies retaliating against Smalls.

"We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment. Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines," the company said in an emailed statement.

The company also called allegations it's not protecting its workers "simply unfounded."

Workers at Amazon's fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y., gather outside to protest work conditions in the company's warehouse on March 30. (Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press)

"Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams. Amazon has implemented a broad suite of new benefits changes for employees in our operations and logistics network throughout this unprecedented pandemic event," Amazon said.

Those benefits include an additional $2 US per hour, double the pay for overtime, and paid time off for part-time and seasonal employees, says Amazon. 

"We are encouraging those who are unwell to stay home and taking extreme measures to keep people safe in our buildings," Amazon said.

"Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and team."

'Take care of your employees'

Smalls told As It Happens that what he has seen on the ground doesn't jibe with what Amazon is saying in its press statements.

"People around me were getting sick, like a Domino effect," he said. "It was a scary situation."

He says he plans to sue Amazon and is working with the New York Attorney General. 

Two labour unions — the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and affiliated United Food and Commercial Workers — have issued statements in support of Smalls, with the latter saying federal regulators should investigate Amazon's actions and Zapolsky and other executives should be fired.

In the meantime, Smalls has penned an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos in the Guardian, asking him to "take care of your employees."

"I'm already unemployed. They terminated me. I don't want the job," Smalls said. "I don't want to work for Jeff Bezos ever again."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Chris Smalls produced by Katie Geleff. 

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