Amazon fired an employee who helped organize a walkout at one of its fulfillment centers over the company’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on Monday.
Chris Smalls, the employee who helped organize the demonstration, said he felt Amazon had failed to enact adequate measures to protect workers at the facility as many Americans turn to online shopping as stay-at-home mandates expand around the country. Smalls was one of a small group who walked out at a fulfillment center on Staten Island, demanding the company close the site and sanitize it before reopening. He said Amazon had notified employees at the warehouse of one confirmed case of the virus but claimed there were several others that hadn’t yet been reported.
Shortly after the strike, Smalls was terminated after working at Amazon for five years.
“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” Smalls said in a statement obtained by HuffPost. “I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe.”
Amazon disputed Smalls’ account in a statement on Monday, saying he had been warned several times for “violating social distancing guidelines” and had been fired after failing to stay home. The company said Smalls’ claims were “simply unfounded.”
“He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” a company spokesperson told HuffPost. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”
The company also said just 15 employees out of 5,000 at its Staten Island location had participated in the demonstration.
“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis,” the spokesperson said. “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 Washington Post notes workers in at least 21 Amazon warehouses and shipping facilities in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus.
Employees at several other major companies staged walkouts on Monday. Workers at Instacart, the grocery delivery company, went on strike nationwide to demand better protections, including hazard pay and expanded paid sick leave. And employees at Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, said they planned to hold a nationwide “sick out” on Tuesday.
Workers at the Staten Island warehouse were first told last week that an employee had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but they told HuffPost’s Emily Peck that business was “normal” and “running just as it had been” after the declaration. Others said they were afraid of getting sick at work, saying there wasn’t enough protection equipment on site, such as hand sanitizer or masks.
Amazon said it has extended a range of benefits to help protect workers during the pandemic, including extended paid leave options for some employees and increased health and safety measures. Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 are entitled to up to two weeks of paid leave, and Amazon says it notifies workers at sites with infected individuals.
The ongoing efforts by warehouse workers throughout the coronavirus pandemic have garnered support from several lawmakers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote Monday that the employees were simply “demanding dignity.”
“When people work an hourly job, it’s suggested in many ways that you‘re unimportant or expendable,” she wrote on Twitter. “Except you aren’t. Everyone deserves safe work, paid leave, & a living wage.”
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