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Firing of Amazon Strike Leader Draws State and City Scrutiny

March 31, 2020, 9:06 PM

Chris Smalls, an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center employee, said the company fired him after he led a strike at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, over coronavirus safety conditions.

“Taking action cost me my job,” Smalls said Monday in a Bloomberg TV interview. “Because I tried to stand up for something that’s right, the company decided to retaliate against me.”

A group of workers at the Staten Island fulfillment center walked off the job Monday to demand Amazon close the facility for extended cleaning, the latest in a wave of virus-related protests. They say a number of their colleagues there were diagnosed with Covid-19. Organizers say more than 60 workers participated in the protest.

In a statement Monday night, New York State Attorney General Letitia James called Smalls’s firing “immoral and inhumane.” James urged the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident and also said her office “is considering all legal options.” On Tuesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had ordered the city’s Commission on Human Rights to “investigate Amazon immediately” as well as determine if Smalls was retaliated against.

WATCH: Chris Smalls, a management assistant at the Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Staten Island known as JFK8, calls the conditions there “horrific” and says workers are “scared for their lives.”
(Source: Bloomberg)

Amazon confirmed it fired Smalls, saying he violated safety regulations, including failing to abide by a 14-day quarantine required after being exposed to an employee with a confirmed case of Covid-19.

“Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk,” Amazon said in a statement. Smalls “was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came on site today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk.”

Smalls called the company’s claim “ridiculous” and said he was being retaliated against for his activism. Federal law protects the right of employees to engage in collective action, including strikes, to protest working conditions.

“I’m still going to continue to fight for those people inside of that building,” he said.

Amazon also disputed the number of workers involved in the protest, saying it was 15 of more than 5,000 employees at the Staten Island site.

“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” the company said.

(Updates with mayor’s comment in fourth paragraph)

--With assistance from Emily Chang and Omar Kasrawi.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Josh Eidelson in Palo Alto at jeidelson@bloomberg.net;
Luke Kawa in New York at lkawa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Alistair Barr at abarr18@bloomberg.net

Andrew Pollack, Vlad Savov

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.