Fired worker says retail giant put Black workers at risk during COVID-19 pandemic
Crusader Staff Report
Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. is supporting a new lawsuit that accuses Amazon of discriminating against a Black worker who was fired after he tried to get fellow workers to speak out against the company for allegedly putting Black workers at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
The plaintiff, Chris Smalls, started working for Amazon at an entry-level position in 2015. He was promoted in 2016 to a management associate responsible for approximately 60 subordinates, according to the complaint.
On November 12, Smalls filed a lawsuit against his former employer in the Eastern District of New York. 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 interacting with an infected colleague.
In his complaint, Smalls said, “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.”
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 Black, 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.
The lawsuit also references a memo leaked to the online news outlet Vice that shows Amazon’s alleged campaign to smear Small’s reputation. The memo to CEO Jeff Bezos from Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky came within days of Smalls’ firing. The memo “characterized Smalls as ‘not smart or articulate’ and suggested that Amazon make him the face of workers criticizing its response to the pandemic.”
Jackson, who heads the Operation Rainbow PUSH, immediately announced his support of Smalls’ lawsuit against Amazon.
“I have spent my entire career fighting against the type of oppression that Chris and his fellow workers experienced at JFK8 and around the world,” Jackson offered in a statement.
“It’s a shame that Amazon would not protect its workers and laborers, exposing them to one of the deadliest enemies in modern history— COVID-19. It’s not right, and I applaud Chris for his courage under fire.”
Jackson also said, “We, too, stand in solidarity with him on this journey. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities on so many levels, from warehouses to jailhouses. It’s an invisible enemy that is killing our communities.
“Chris’ case is a classic example of how corporate greed and insensitivity can literally expose communities to untold and unnecessary risks. We must continue to fight for the voiceless who can’t fight for themselves because of their circumstances.”
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 has 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.
In October, Amazon opened a 140,000-square-foot warehouse in the Pullman neighborhood. The $60 million facility will serve as Amazon’s first delivery station in Chicago.