'It's retaliation': Amazon warehouse worker fired following coronavirus employee walkout

Chris Smalls says he organized a protest over fears of a coronavirus outbreak.

March 31, 2020, 6:59 PM

Just two hours after Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls organized a protest on Monday over fears of a coronavirus outbreak at one of the company's busiest fulfillment centers, he says he was fired over the phone.

"We all know this is retaliation. There’s no way around it. I took a huge stand, put my career on the line and I don’t regret it," Smalls, who worked at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, told ABC News on Tuesday. "I don’t know how they even sleep at night for doing that."

Smalls said he plans to take legal action against the company, calling his dismissal a "wrongful termination."

But an Amazon spokesperson denied that retribution played a role in Smalls' termination, claiming that Smalls violated safety procedures by breaking his quarantine after coming in contact with a coronavirus-infected colleague.

"Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk," Amazon said in a statement on Tuesday to ABC News. "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. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on 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."

PHOTO: Christian Smalls holds a sign at an Amazon distribution center during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in the Staten Island borough of New York, March 30, 2020.
Christian Smalls holds a sign at an Amazon distribution center during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in the Staten Island borough of New York, March 30, 2020.
Jeenah Moon/Reuters

New York Attorney General Letitia James said she is calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate Smalls' dismissal.

"It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues," James said in a statement. "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. In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited."

"At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane," James added.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon that he has ordered the city's Commission on Human Rights to immediately launch an investigation to determine if Smalls was fired for raising health and safety concerns.

"If so, that would be a violation of our city human rights law and we would act on it immediately," de Blasio said. "I should also note the sheriff's office did an inspection of the facility to ensure that social distancing is being observed and they will continue to inspect as needed."

Smalls, who had worked for Amazon for five years, organized a worker walkout and protest outside the Staten Island facility, where he claims multiple employees have tested positive for the virus, which as of Tuesday had killed more than 900 people in New York City.

I took a huge stand, put my career on the line and I don’t regret it.

Smalls told ABC News that while he was sent home on quarantine on Saturday, he has exhibited no symptoms of the virus. Federal government experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that many carriers of COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and not know they have the virus until tested.

However, Smalls says he believes he was put on quarantine to prevent him from organizing workers to protest conditions at the Staten Island fulfillment center, which serves New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

He refuted the company's claim that he was repeatedly warned about violating social distancing guidelines.

"You're supposed to get a verbal warning, you're supposed to get documentation and then it goes to a write up, and then it goes to a termination. So how do you skip all three processes and go right for a termination?" Smalls said. "I've been there five years. I know how it goes. So for them to even say that is just ridiculous."

He had a message for Jeff Bezos, the billionaire chief executive officer of Amazon: "You need to hold your spokespeople and your regionals accountable because this is inhumane what they’re doing. They’re forcing the site leaders to keep these buildings open where people are testing positive," he said.

"They're trying to keep this building open by any means necessary and Jeff Bezos needs to fire who’s ever in charge of this Northeast region," Smalls said.

Smalls said the whole point of Monday's worker walkout was to bring attention to alleged unsanitary conditions inside the warehouse in hopes that Amazon would close the facility to thoroughly clean it.

"It was a cry for help," Smalls said.

While he claims up to 60 workers joined him at the protest rally, an Amazon spokesperson said the number was far fewer than that.

"Of the 5,000 employees at our Staten Island site, 15 people -- less than a half a precent of associates -- participated in (Monday's) demonstration," a statement from Amazon's reads. "Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis."

The company called Smalls' accusations that it is putting workers in jeopardy "simply unfounded" and claims it has taken "extreme measures" to keep workers safe, including "tripling down" on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies for employees and changing procedures in its buildings to keep workers spread out.

The controversy erupted as some workers at Whole Foods, which is also owned by Amazon, staged a national "sick out" on Tuesday.

"COVID-19 poses a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and our customers," according to a statement from the organizers of the "sick out" that was posted on the website coworker.org. "We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us."

A spokesperson for Whole Foods said in a statement on Tuesday that the company is "committed to prioritizing our Team Members’ wellbeing, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication."

"We have taken extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers," the company's statement reads. "Team Members in our stores and facilities also have access to up to two weeks of paid time off if they test positive for COVID or are quarantined, an additional $2 per hour on top of hourly base pay, and increased overtime pay."

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