Amazon is under pressure to prove that they really care about their workers and considering leaked memo notes from a meeting, they aren’t giving a good impression.
On Monday, the company fired Christian Smalls, a worker at their Staten Island fulfillment center, who was let go almost immediately after he led a group of co-workers in a walkout from the building in protest. They accused Amazon of inadequately responding to the coronavirus pandemic and not safeguarding their workers. According to The New York Times, their demands were simply for the building to be temporarily closed and more vigorously sanitized and for employees to be paid during the hiatus, considering a few of them had become sick.
According to Vice, Amazon held an internal leadership meeting discussing their response to the coronavirus pandemic where billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos was even present. In leaked notes for the meeting, the Staten Island incident came up and they used racist tropes to describe Smalls deeming him “not smart or articulate.”
Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote the notes, which read, “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”
Amazon says they fired Smalls because he violated a company-imposed 14-day quarantine after he came in contact with a worker who tested positive for the coronavirus. However, Smalls says the employee who tested positive had contact with many other workers for longer periods of time before her test came back. He argues that he was singled out after pleading with management to sanitizing the warehouse and to be more transparent about the number of employees who were sick.
In a statement to Vice regarding his “not smart or articulate” description of Smalls, Zapolsky said. “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.” In Zapolsky’s notes, the executives detail Amazon’s plan to respond to the coronavirus so that their workers are safe, such as efforts to buy millions of protective masks, as well as attempts at producing and selling its own masks.
However, the notes also detail attempts to paint Smalls as the bad guy.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
The notes urged Amazon executives to use Smalls to discredit the wider labor movement at Amazon, considering employees at an NYC warehouse known as JFK8 ignited an effort to unionize in 2018. Amazon has resisted organized labor efforts for years.
The company is in a particularly unique position during the coronavirus pandemic, considering a lot of the country is quarantining inside their homes or practicing social distancing. With schools and businesses closing down, demands are high for supplies that can replace classrooms, co-working spaces, gyms, hair salons and more. Just last month, Amazon announced that it would hire 100,000 more workers in its fulfillment centers and delivery networks to meet demands. Although the company provided a $2 an hour increase in pay, workers across the country have still staged walkouts to demand better health protection during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 5,000 workers at the Staten Island warehouse are already at risk, considering the facility is 12 miles from the ferry that links Staten Island to Manhattan. People travel hours from all over New York and New Jersey just to get to the facility, which means employees are forced to take several modes of transportation which New York officials have advised against unless absolutely necessary.
Amazon came under major scrutiny after Smalls was fired. Letitia James, the New York State attorney general, and Mayor Bill de Blasio both called for an investigation into Mr. Smalls’ dismissal. When Wednesday rolled around, the country’s most prominent union heads and more than 40 local political leaders also demanded that Amazon reinstate Mr. Smalls.
The 31-year-old father of three has been writing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to mandate a shut down of Amazon’s Staten Island facility, which still hasn’t closed down for intensive cleaning. Instead, Amazon began screening the temperatures of workers entering the facility so they don’t disrupt the flow of merchandise.
A spokesperson for the company, Kristen Kish, dismissed the idea that employees were angry about Amazon’s handling of the pandemic, pointing out that “the vast majority” continue to show up every day and do “heroic work.”
However, Smalls has an entirely different side. “They keep saying we’re like the Red Cross,” he told the Post. “We’re not. We’re regular people and we didn’t sign up for this.”
You can check out more of what Smalls had to say before the walkout on Monday in his interview with CNBC below.