Black former Amazon worker alleges discrimination in pandemic response

Chris Smalls was fired from Amazon in late March after organizing a protest.

November 13, 2020, 5:09 PM

A Black former Amazon worker has filed a lawsuit against the e-commerce giant, alleging it racially discriminated against him and put fellow people of color at risk as they worked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a proposed class-action suit filed Thursday in the Eastern District of New York, Chris Smalls alleges he was fired from Amazon in March within hours of organizing a public demonstration demanding a fulfillment center at which a worker tested positive be deep-cleaned and sanitized. Amazon said he was fired for violating safety procedures -- breaking a quarantine after coming in contact with an infected colleague.

Chris Smalls, a former Amazon Warehouse worker and founder of the The Congress of Essential Workers, speaks at a protest in front of Jeff Bezos mansion in Washington, D.C., calling for expanded rights for essential workers, on Aug. 27, 2020.
Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Newscom, FILE

Smalls says in the complaint that he organized the protest after alleging that "Amazon was not taking the temperatures of workers before allowing them to commence work nor providing its workers with personal protective equipment or hand sanitizer nor adequately enforcing social distancing within the facility nor following New York or CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfecting the facility."

Smalls started working for Amazon at an entry-level position in 2015 and was promoted in 2016 to management associate, responsible for approximately 60 subordinates, according to the complaint.

The complaint argues Smalls felt "he had a responsibility" to raise these concerns to management because he believed that management "was indifferent to the health, welfare and survival of his subordinates, co-workers and their families because the large majority of them were African-Americans, Latino or immigrants who were vulnerable because of their recent entry into the United States."

When Smalls first raised health and safety issues by bringing "a group of minority workers to meet with management," he alleges that they were "repelled" and the company "did not demonstrate concern for the group's health/welfare," the complaint adds.

Moreover, Smalls alleges Amazon management was "far more receptive" to the workers' health and safety concerns when he met with them again with a group that included white workers.

Chris Smalls and other demonstrators protest outside Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif., Oct. 4, 2020.
Ringo Chiu via AP, FILE

The lawsuit also references a memo leaked to Vice within days of Smalls' firing, from Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky to CEO Jeff Bezos, which "characterized Smalls as 'not smart or articulate' and suggested that Amazon make him the face of workers criticizing its response to the pandemic." ABC News did not independently verify the memo.

Amazon has denied the allegations that COVID-19 safety efforts were motivated by race.

“We terminated Mr. Smalls for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment," Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement to ABC News on Friday. "Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. 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. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite further putting the teams at risk."

Levandowski added that Amazon's "mission is to be the earth’s most customer-centric company, and this mission is central to our work in diversity and inclusion."

Amazon said it's invested millions of dollars to create a safe workplace amid the pandemic and made more than 150 process changes to prioritize worker safety.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for Black and Latino workers at the facility where Smalls was employed.