Amazon fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against the new coronavirus, saying the employee himself flouted distancing rules and put others at risk.
The decision prompted a rebuke from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who called on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate. James said her office is also considering legal options, saying the right to organize is protected in New York.
“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James said in a statement.
But Amazon said Christian Smalls had received several warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. Amazon said Smalls showed up at the protest at the Staten Island warehouse Monday despite an order to remain home for 14 days because he had come into contact with a co-worker who had been diagnosed with the virus. The company said Smalls was put on paid leave during the 14-day isolation period.
Smalls did not immediately return emails seeking comment.
Several Amazon workers walked out of the warehouse, demanding the facility be shut and cleaned during a paid time off after the co-worker tested positive for the virus. About 100 workers were expected to attend the rally, but Amazon said the actual number was much lower.
The Seattle-based company said it has taken aggressive steps to protect its employees from the virus, including cleaning and distancing measures. Amazon is checking the temperature of anyone entering the Staten Island warehouse, a step the company said would be implemented in other facilities as soon as possible.
The company said it consults with local and federal health authorities on how to handle building closures if an employee tests positive, including evaluating the worker’s interactions with others.
Several walk-outs and protests have drawn attention to fear and discontent among low-wage workers on the front lines of the pandemic, particularly those packing and delivering groceries and other essentials for millions of people hunkering down at home.
A group of workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, planned to stage a “sick out” Tuesday to demand hazard pay, immediate closure and cleaning of stores if a worker tests positive for the virus, and health benefits for part-time and seasonal workers. It was unclear how widespread the protest was.
Whole Foods said it offers workers up to two weeks of paid time off if they test positive for COVID-19 or are quarantined, an additional $2 per hour on top of hourly base pay, and increased overtime pay. Amazon is also offering an additional $2 per hour for its hourly workers.
Amazon is hiring 100,000 more workers to meet a surge in demand for deliveries, one of several companies that have announced such hiring sprees. Despite the hazards of the jobs, many people are applying as layoffs soar from retailers, restaurants, airlines and other industries.
Instacart, the San Francisco-based grocery delivery app, is hiring 300,000 more contracted workers, saying orders have surged 150% in recent weeks compared to last year. Some Instacart workers walked off the job Monday to demand hazard pay and more protective gear against the virus.